The Songs of Johannes Brahms ~ 1

Angelika Kirchschlager; Graham Johnson (Hyperion CDJ 33121)

26 June 2010 3.5 stars

Kirchschlager BrahmsIt was only a matter of time before Johannes Brahms joined the pantheon of song composers to receive the complete-edition treatment on Hyperion, and Austrian mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager is an appropriately starry singer for volume one. As often before, though, the most consistent pleasure comes from the accompaniment—both at the keyboard and in the tirelessly researched booklet essays—provided by Graham Johnson.

As one would expect, he's given a great deal of thought as to how to present the songs, deciding only to group together songs by opus number if he feels there is enough evidence that Brahms designed them to be performed as such. He is critical of the grand 'search for cycles' and argues for individual songs to be appreciated on their own terms, not as part of an artificially manufactured whole. As a result, we have songs from nine different opus numbers here, not counting three of the folk songs (which are to be distributed between all the issues). The seven songs from Op. 48 are all here, however.

This decision, justifiable on Johnson's part, does require some work from the listener, who not only has to familiarize him- or herself with a secondary cast of poets from the dustiest corners of German literature, but also has to unravel opus numbers from the often unrelated chronology of Brahms's life in order to get the kind of overview any complete edition inevitably encourages. Johnson does, at least, programme the songs roughly in order of composition. For those who want to do the work, the notes are a treasure-trove of information, but I found myself sitting back an enjoying each song as it came. That, it seems, is Johnson's aim.

Kirchschlager is a serious artist with a rich, beautiful voice. She's clearly thought a great deal about her interpretations, too, albeit maybe at times a little too much. For while Johnson is a past master at incorporating interpretative detail into a performance with no loss of musical flow, Kirchschlager can sound a little fussy. The added heft on the voice now means she has problems communicating with the artlessness that some of Brahms' more innocent sounding songs demand (the two Uhland settings from Op.19 that start the disc, for example), and manoeuvres around the lines with rather too much effort at times. She seems caught between stools in the bigger numbers too (Johnson has hinted in previous notes that he's not a fan of songs becoming too operatic), which makes for a strangely reticent 'Von ewiger Liebe', where neither Johnson nor she seems terribly sure of how the tempo changes should be carried out. Elsewhere her German sounds a little indistinct, with inconsistent vowels and fussy touches of acting.

I missed a sense of blissful rapture in that other favourite, 'Feldeinsamkeit', but found Kirchschlager a lot more successful in the economy of 'Herbstgefühl', as well as the Goethe setting 'Dämmrung senkte sich con oben' from Op.59. She does little to help some of the weaker songs, though, and her somewhat melodramatic delivery only confirms Johnson's description of another Goethe setting, 'Trost in Tränen', as 'self-pitying and chromatically lachrymose'. There's always a fine voice on display and a keen intelligence at work, but things are always best in those songs where she and her accompanist are unequivocally on the same wavelength. Perhaps surprisingly, this happens more completely in the delightful performances of four folk-songs that complete the recital, concluding with a wonderfully mischievous 'Och Moder, ich well en Ding han!'.

By Hugo Shirley