Heimweh II, Op.63/8
O kühler Wald, Op.72/3
Wir wandelten, Op.96/2
Ein Wanderer, Op.106/5
Das Mädchen spricht, Op.107/3
Auf dem kirchhofe, Op.105/4
Vergebliches Ständchen, Op.84/4
An die Nachtigall, Op.46/4
Meine Liebe ist grün, Op.63/5
Komm bald, Op.97/5
Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht, Op.96/1
Von ewiger Liebe, Op.43/1
Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano) with Ernest Lush (piano; first 12 Lieder and final one) & Paul Hamburger (piano)
Recorded in BBC Studios London 16 September 1960 (first 12 items; Lush), 7 February 1961 (Experimental Stereo; Lush) & 4 January 1968
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: November 2006
CD No: BBC LEGENDS
Duration: 70 minutes
As Tully Potter’s booklet note points out, Brahms’s songs have fallen into relative obscurity and it is not difficult to see why. Unlike Schubert, Brahms was not a natural melodist, and he didn’t express much angst or morbidity in his songs. Unlike Schumann, there is little sense of fantasy, heartfelt introspection or insanity; and Brahms was overly fond of the strophic form, which can lead to repetitiveness. And yet when performed well, the songs do convey a sense of humanity and warmth and on these recordings by Janet Baker they receive well-nigh-definitive renditions.
In 1961 Baker was only 27 and yet most of the qualities that would make her one of the 20th-century’s greatest singers were already in place. The dynamic range is wide and the variety of tonal colours exceptional; there is an effortless ability to highlight words and phrases without ever sacrificing the vocal line as well as a deep understanding of the overall emotional temperature and mood of each and every song.
“Wir wandelten” is well known, and Baker’s slight pauses before ‘wir wunder’ are perfect. The late song “Ständchen” bounces along with two exquisite portamento-falls from forte to piano. By 1968 Baker’s voice had darkened slightly and there is even more innigkeit – a greater sense of inwardness and spirituality. “Feldeinsamkeit” is rapt, never rises above piano and every word carries meaning; perfection is rare, but this is exactly that. The only slight criticism that can be made is that there is, very occasional, a slight flatness to notes in a few of the earlier performances.
Baker was lucky to have two marvellous accompanists. Ernest Lush is one of those figures who tend to evoke tea and cucumber sandwiches, but here he shows himself to be an immensely civilised pianist with a glowing tone. Paul Hamburger is more assertive, but he phrases beautifully and, like Lush, there is a genuine sense of partnership with the singer.
The mono sound is excellent throughout, with the voice and piano perfectly balanced and a true sense of space around the artists. Inevitably in 1968 there is greater clarity and definition to the piano sound and a larger dynamic range. Audiophiles like myself will be frustrated by the “Experimental Stereo” track, the final one – “Von ewiger Liebe” –, because it is superb and can only leave one wondering why the BBC took so long to take up stereophonic recording and broadcasting.
It must be reported that there is something amiss with track 3, “Geheimnis”, in that the song is complete but is followed by a snippet of extra material. And there are no texts and translations included in the booklet, which is highly regrettable and smacks of either laziness and/or cost cutting.
Nevertheless this is a great disc and an essential purchase for song aficionados, and for anyone seeking a perfect introduction to Brahms’s Lieder.
- BBC Legends informs that the fault on track 3 is being corrected and that the disc will be re-pressed and should be available towards the end of November or early December. This review posted on 21 November 2006
- BBC Legends further advises that texts and translations can be downloaded (see link below) and that such advice is missing from the documentation of this particular release
- BBC Legends