“Other Love Songs” = BRAHMS: Liebeslieder Walzer, op. 52; Neue Liebeslieder, Op. 65; STEPHEN HOUGH: Other Love Songs – The Prince Consort/ Alistair Hogarth, director/ Philip Fowke & Stephen Hough, piano – Linn multichannel SACD 382, 62:55 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
My favorite to this point for the Brahms works has been the EMI recording with Anne Sofie von Otter, Kurt Streit, Bengt Forsberg, Barbara Bonney, Helmut Deutsch, and Olaf Bär. That is a beautifully recorded disc that also has the Spanische Liebeslieder, Op. 138 as well. But there are many others, including a fabulous version with the Robert Shaw Festival Singers on Telarc that includes some miscellaneous songs too. In fact, there are around 20-25 readings of these pieces available, and many are quite excellent. Okay, face it—these pieces are not really the most difficult things in the world to sing, and often require less stringent interpretative nuance than many of Brahms’s other works. But they still have to be in tune, properly balanced, and done with the correct degree of style and spirit, and that means a very deep acquaintance with the art of the ländler, that rustic, pre-waltz form that so attracted Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler—and yes, Brahms himself.
In other words, there has to be a certain sense of the amateur in performances of these works without sounding amateurish. They have to have the sense of a party about them, a soiree, a good time, a get together with friends out in a parlor on a Sunday afternoon. And the voices, while needing to blend properly, can’t be too perfect, which really is what we get on the EMI recording and so many others. The voices here, all of up-and-comers, are just new enough to not take themselves too seriously and concentrate on the virtues of the ensemble (when needed—some are solo vehicles) as opposed to the glories of individual voices.
These were very popular in Brahms’s day, the first set following the composition of the German Requiem (one of his greatest successes), while the second set, much more somber in tone and deceptively serious, preceded his First Symphony. Almost all of Brahms’s early works were enormously and immediately popular. The Prince Consort is young enough to not be intimidated by anyone and make a really carefree run at these pieces, to great effect.
The Hough premiere was commissioned by the Prince, and the composer set out to take on the theme of love, but not romantic between a man and a woman, but focusing on “different” kinds of love—I’ll let you read the texts to see how different they are. He also avoids waltzes, which is a good idea coming between the two Brahms sets as it serves as a very nice bridge and transition, amazingly so. These are profoundly lyrical pieces of intensity and excellent craftsmanship, making me want to hear more of Hough’s music, as I have known him to date only as a pianist—clearly there are other sides to the man.
The Prince performs perfectly in these works, and the surround sound is elegantly displayed to wonderful purpose, proving once again that Linn is on the ascent when it comes to audiophile recordings. Very nice indeed.
— Steven Ritter
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