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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Lieder und Gesänge, Op. 32 [24:21]
Lieder nach Gedichte von Heinrich Heine [13:28]
Vier ernste Gesänge, Op. 121 [17:51]
Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Christoph Eschenbach (piano)
rec. Teldex Studio Berlin, April 2013 & December 2015
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902174 [55:49]

Make no mistake, this release isn’t designed to send you out whistling! The first thing that strikes you about it is the extraordinary darkness of Goerne's voice. That, coupled with the choice of repertoire (and even the cover photograph) suggest that this is not a disc whose intention is to bring light relief. The artistic rewards are great, however, and well worth investing in.

The disc culminates in the Four Serious Songs, but the opening Op. 32 cycle makes a most arresting starting point. The darkness of tone in ‘Wie rafft ich mich’ is as profound as that depicted in the poem, and Goerne and Eschenbach make something profound out of Brahms’ study of contradictory nature in ‘Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen’. Eschenbach's depiction of the river in ‘Der Strom’ is as powerful as Goerne's existential singing, but both then increase the intensity yet further for the subsequent ‘Wehe, so willst du mich wieder’. After this almost unremittingly bleak first half, however, the second half of the cycle slips into a beautiful (though hardly relaxed) major key, and the effect is delightful. Goerne hardly alters the dark, even slightly baleful character of his voice, but Eschenbach's piano playing takes on a more gently suffused tone which I found utterly beguiling, culminating in a truly blissful account of the last song, ‘Wie bist du, mein Königin’, with Goerne achieving a magical pianissimo in the final line.

The Heine songs, though not a cycle, are given a treatment that is every bit as aristocratic. The pair of Op. 85 songs feel like a single, deeply meditative unit, and the nuancing of both the voice and piano is remarkable in the Op. 96 trilogy. ‘Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht’ feels like a journey into the soul, while ‘Es schauen die Blumen alle’ feels almost Schubertian in its equivocation of nature and love. ‘Meerfahrt’ is part Barcarolle and part horror soundtrack, with extraordinary things going on in the piano line, and Goerne responds with guttural vocal imagery that is remarkably powerful.

That trilogy alone would distinguish this disc as a true partnership, worthy of comparisons with the finest, but the Four Serious Songs make a fitting culmination. The steady tread of the first song is chilling in its evocation of the inevitability of death, worthy to stand alongside the second movement of the German Requiem, and ‘Ich wandte mich’ is profoundly meditative. ‘O Tod, wie bitter bist du’ is strangely beautiful, however, particularly in the second verse which contemplates the release the death brings to the needy, and the triumphant transcendence of ‘Wenn ich mit Menschen’ makes for a fitting culmination to not only the cycle but the whole disc. Perhaps it did find some cheer after all, all the more welcome in being so long waited for. This is a grown-up disc of grown-up repertoire, but it’s superbly done and it’s entirely worthy to stand alongside Goerne’s excellent Schubert recitals for the same label.

Simon Thompson



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