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Cantatas for Soprano
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Johannes BRAHMS (1883-1897) Complete Duets & Quartets
Juliane Banse (soprano)
Ingeborg Danz (mezzo-soprano)
Iris Vermillion (mezzo-soprano)
Christoph Prégardien (tenor)
Marcus Ullmann (tenor)
Andreas Schmidt (baritone)
Helmut Deutsch (piano)
Wolfram Rieger (piano) (op.52/65)
Marianne Beate Kielland (alto)
rec. Kleiner Sendesaal (rbb), Berlin, April 1997, September 1999, September 2001, May 2003 CPO 777 537-2 [3 CDs: 149.25]
‘Charming’ is not perhaps the first adjective that comes to mind when we think of Brahms, but it is a term absolutely apt for this collection. Many people – perhaps too many – know Brahms just from his orchestral oeuvre, and it is too easy to think of him in terms of careful, classical structures, or even – from poor performances – as a little stodgy with thick textures. His photographs – especially those in full beard to match any of the most eminent Victorians – encourage the mental picture of someone serious, even solemn.
His songs tell a different story. There is no lack of craftsmanship – Brahms took as much care with his songs as with all his other work, destroying many which did not meet his fastidious standards. Yet within the songs we find humour, elegance and a keen ear for melody and variety.
This set has many delights, as for instance in the four duets (op.61) that open the second CD. These come from 1874. There is a folk-like simplicity. The first of the duets (each is for soprano and mezzo) Die Schwestern (‘The Sisters’) is in the Magyar idiom, and is about two close sisters loving the same boy. The interplay of the voices is delightful, but notice also the artistry of the switch from the agreement of voices in the upbeat opening to the subtle change in tone when the disagreement in love emerges in the final lines. A lesser artist might have chosen a more abrupt transition, as a dramatic trick, but Brahms economically reminds us of both the differences and the underlying unity of the partnership.
In the second duet, Klosterfraülein (‘Little Nun’) there is a simple lament of loneliness, as there is the brief tale (also set by Schumann in Romanzen of 1849) of the reluctant nun committed to the convent by her mother. The result is an affecting miniature of under two minutes, with moments of both vocal beauty and fascinating commentary – and moments of silence – from the accompanist. In the two remaining duets, simplicity gives way to greater elaboration.
I chose Opus 61 at random, to illustrate both the beauty and delights of the work here.
This collection – to which I shall often return – completes cpo’s series of all Brahms’ Leider. It is a triumphant conclusion – each of the singers is highly accomplished, and each CD makes a satisfying programme for late night listening. It is good that chronological order is strictly maintained – one can follow the development in Brahms’ artistry. Notes are full and informative – other companies please note – with complete texts and translations (no messing about looking online). The one quibble would be to ask why the compilation could not be contained on two discs rather than three, but if that is the worst that can be said of this set, why quibble?