No fewer than six opus numbers consisting of accompanied vocal quartets appear in Johannes Brahms’ (1833-1897) catalogue of works. Three of those works appear in this CD, opus 52, 64 and 65. From the top, these are among the most cheerful, light-hearted and melodic in his musical output; they are based on words written by Georg Friedrich Daumer, C.O. Sternau, Friedrich von Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This CD includes all of 36 songs – love songs – for four voices ad libitum and piano four hands found in their respective opus; these are also sung at times with chorus and orchestral accompaniment. We hear in this CD the use of deep bass notes and pedals to obtain a rich and powerful sound which is faithfully reproduced given Harmonia mundi’s expertise in the matter.
It is easy to grasp even on first listening that none of these pieces forfeits any of Brahms’ typical grandeur because they are executed by just a few performers, its many facets and richness receive much greater prominence with such smaller orchestration though still imbued with incomprehensible beauty and greatness. This puzzles me: I can not explain it, nor can I completely understand it. These songs speak a dialectical language which is thoroughly affectionate and relevant even today. A language characterized by grace, refinement and originality, coupled with a certain dignity and elegance. Musical unity is thoroughly achieved by this small ensemble and in the process they are certainly able to convey that sin e qua non “monumentality” we expect from Brahms. Grandeur is not expressed here by sheer sound volume, it derives from clear transparency and a delicate balance between vocal and instrumental parts (the piano), which translates into an exquisite mixture.
Dynamic balance is correct in all details without the need of extraneous technical intervention. The voices are clearly either in the left and/or the right speakers (not in a virtual center) and the piano is present in that virtual acoustic space behind and around the singers. The piano is everywhere. The finest and most subtle tonal differences of the voices do not alter the musical substance but rather enhance it. The question of sound in this CD is nonetheless decisive, because the tones, the voices, and the piano playing act to stimulate and inspire the music making and thus profoundly – if almost imperceptibly – affect the performance, as well as our listening. Harmonia mundi really delivers an outstanding balanced stereo sound of great dynamic force and everything and everybody is audible, no one drowns out the others, they achieve a meaningful balance by developing one tonal level throughout for a profound psycho-acoustical experience.
Finally, how puzzling Brahms music can be at times! Emotions are expressed through harmonic and melodic figures, that is, a certain “inner artistry” and all motifs in these pieces, parts of phrases and even entire phrases seem all too familiar to us. Brahms was not an innovator in his art for the most part, as were Wagner, Monteverdi, or Schönberg. He did not reform music, he just made it better. In the tonal language of his predecessors (Bach – Mozart – Beethoven – Schubert – Mendelssohn) he found the resources to say and express everything he wanted, with a new twist though. The all-too-familiar Austrian ländlers and Viennese waltzes dry vertical rhythms provide the momentum that propels the music right into our hearts. I thoroughly recommend this CD to romantics at heart; others might feel the same way after listening to these exquisite miniatures. If you doubt that please listen to tracks 4, 8, 20 and 34, and then let us know about it.
— John Nemaric.