The Songs of Brahms 4 – Robert Holl, bass-baritone/ Graham Johnson, piano – Hyperion

by | Sep 20, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

The Songs of Brahms 4 – Robert Holl, bass-baritone/ Graham Johnson, piano – Hyperion CDJ33124, 76:06 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***1/2:
This latest of the Brahms song series from Hyperion concentrates primarily on the complete Op. 94 Songs and the incandescent Four Serious Songs of Op. 121. Aside from this there is a discernible emphasis on low voice songs that often equate to the slow and melancholy with this composer. Not that that is a bad thing; Brahms does melancholy better than anyone, and you can hardly approach any of his music without encountering something of the downhearted and cloudy.
Holl is a risky singer. Not only is he capable of floating some wonderful pianissimos and vigorous fortes, but he has a side to him that seems to emanate from the street. The singer is constantly in search of truth in this music, and with Brahms that can often prove elusive; but in that search he is equally willing to probe the depths as well as the heights, and sometimes purely beautiful singing is not enough, it does not satisfy nor does it inspire. So a certain roughness of vocal quality is not out of place on this recording. Whether this is deliberate or whether the highly emotional tone of the singer in relation to the songs simply generates this sort of sound is not quite to be understood, yet it is undeniably there. Particularly effective, yet harrowing at the same time, are the Four Serious Songs of 1896, a year that saw the composer suffering from the liver cancer that would kill him months later, and the loss of his beloved Clara Schumann. Brahms the atheist and wannabe Christian is coming to terms with his own indeterminate fate, and reaches once again to biblical material in order to describe the doubts that his own disbelief could not express on its own. He wants to make the words from First Corinthians his own, yet never seems able to climb out of the abyss. Holl understands this and brings us right along with Brahms, kicking and screaming though we are.
Graham Johnson is outstanding as usual, and everyone who owns any of the Hyperion lieder discs knows the quality of content. Holl is not for everyone, but in some cases, like the aforementioned Four Serious Songs, he just might be the only one.
1 An die Nachtigall Op 46/4
2 Schwermut Op 58/5
3 Dein blaues Auge Op 59/8
4 Heimweh I Op 63/7
5 Heimweh II Op 63/8
6 Heimweh III Op 63/9
7 Alte Liebe Op 72/1
8 Sommerfäden Op 72/2
9 O kühler Wald Op 72/3
10 Verzagen Op 72/4
11 Todessehnen Op 86/6
12 Fünf Lieder Op 94
13 Komm bald Op 97/5
14 Wie Melodien Op 105/1
15 Auf dem See Op 106/2
16 Maienkätzchen Op 107/4
17 Vier ernste Gesänge Op 121
—Steven Ritter

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