Hyperion’s The Songs of Brahms – 4: Robert Holl & Graham Johnson

0 of 5 stars

An die Nachtigall, Op.46/4; Schwermut, Op.58/5; Dein blaues Auge, Op.59/8; Heimweh I-III, Opp.63/7-9; Alte Liebe, Op.72/1; Sommerfäden, Op.72/2; O kühler Wald, Op.72/3; Verzagen, Op.72/4; Todessehnen, Op.86/6; Mit vierzig Jahren, Op.94/1; Steig auf, geliebter Schatten, Op.94/2; Mein Herz ist schwer, Op.94/5; Sapphische Ode, Op.94/4; Kein Haus, keine Heimat, Op.94/5; Komme bald, Op.97/5; Wie Melodien, Op.105/1; Auf dem See, Op.106/2; Maienkätzchen, Op.107/4
Vier ernste Gesänge, Op.121

Robert Holl (bass-baritone) & Graham Johnson (piano)

Recorded 27-29 September 2010 at All Saints’ Durham Road, East Finchley, London

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: October 2012
Duration: 76 minutes



The fascination of Johannes Brahms’s songs lies in their elusiveness. On a larger canvas his music has immediate appeal but these exquisite miniatures are less easy to pin down. They reveal their glories gradually, and only in familiarity does their beauty hit home.

Not that Robert Holl produces a sound that could be called beautiful in the classic sense, but his peaty, cask-strength voice is an ideal match for Lieder whose common hinterland is that of a man weighed down by the burden of having lived long and lost too much. Graham Johnson’s cunningly-selected programme for this fourth disc in Hyperion’s complete Brahms Song series fits the Dutch bass-baritone like a glove. Although most of the selections here deal with the past, their common theme is the apprehension of old age – a lament for today, not for the parade that’s gone by. The two Karl Candidus settings, ‘Alte Liebe’ and ‘Sommerfäden’, typify this with what Graham Johnson describes in his characteristically insightful booklet note (which includes texts and translations) as their “bittersweet reminiscences”.

The three songs collectively known as Heimweh (Homesickness) perpetuate the melancholy. As the title of the second one makes clear (‘O wüsst ich doch den Weg zurück’ – Ah! if I but knew the way back), this is a homesickness of time as well as place – a distinction perfectly captured in Holl’s wistful reading. The single Rückert setting, ‘Mit vierzig Jahren’ (At forty), has a palpably Schubertian mood of fatalism. Onward and downward to death we go, it seems to say, with a quiet resignation that recalls the serene movements of A German Requiem.

Song after song is slow and contemplative, even ‘Verzagen’ where the piano is hyperactive in a febrile, troubled way while the voice remains languorous. Yet with Holl and Johnson there is no danger that the listener will share the prevailing lassitude, for their interpretations, caught in a typically impeccable Hyperion recording, are constantly alive and vivid. In ‘Wie Melodien’ (Like melodies) they are a duo of melodic equals, with Johnson notably poetic in the undulating piano part. In the disc’s sole untroubled song, ‘Auf dem See’ (On the lake), myriad colours dapple the pianistic waters.

Perhaps inevitably, Holl and Johnson conclude with Brahms’s final works for the voice, the Vier ernste Gesänge. These ‘Four Serious Songs’ are grander and more elaborate than anything that has gone before, and their wide currency is well deserved, for despite their biblical source they are profound, persuasive statements of humanism. Holl’s growling account, world-weary yet reconciled, will take some beating.

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