5 Goethe Lieder [Wilkommen und Abschied, D762; Versunken, D715; An Schwanger Kronos, D369; Meeres Stille, D216; Prometheus, D674]
Variations sérieuses, Op.54
5 Goethe Lieder [Lied der Brander; Lied des Mephistopheles; Lied des Unmuts; Zigeunerlied Op.55/2; Schlechter Trost]
3 Michelangelo Lieder
Vier ernste Gesänge, Op.121
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone) & András Schiff (piano)
Reviewed by: Anne Ozorio
Reviewed: 8 January, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Hanno Müller-Brachmann may not, as yet, be a ‘big name’, but given that András Schiff was partnering him here says something. His debut at Wigmore Hall last January was cancelled, so this recital was a good opportunity to hear him.
At last: a baritone who’s a hunk! It is no surprise that Müller-Brachmann is making a name in opera, where good-looks are no disadvantage. Fortunately, he is also committed to Lieder, in which standards are rigorous.
Schubert’s five Goethe songs are standard repertoire. Müller-Brachmann didn’t have quite the visceral impact of Goerne and Quasthoff, who were considerably younger than he when they first made an impact. “An Schwanger Kronos” has built-in drama, but “Meeres Stille” finds the voice exposed. “Fearful deadly silence!” goes the text, not a single ripple stirs on the glasslike stillness of the lake. It’s difficult to convey moods as subtle as this – but Müller-Brachmann carries it off.
This concert was part of a series devised by András Schiff entitled “Songs – With and Without Words”. Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses was a good choice, contemplative and semi-religious, but resolving affirmatively and up-beat; Schiff’s nimble arpeggios sparkled.
It was also a good idea to contrast the Schubert’s settings of Goethe with those by Ferruccio Busoni, for they show the poet in a completely different frame of mind. Best known perhaps is ‘Lied der Mephistopheles’ (Mephistopheles and the Flea) famously set by Mussorgsky. The Busoni deserves to be better known. I’ve heard wilder performances of the crazy werewolf chorus in ‘Zigeunerlied’, but Müller-Brachmann was animated, capturing the madcap ambience that drew Busoni to these particular texts.
In the second half of the programme we entered the hallowed inner sanctum of the bass-baritone repertoire, with Wolf’s Michelangelo songs and Brahms’s “Four Serious Songs”. From Wolf, the noble ‘Alles endet, was entstehet’ was majestically phrased, the singer’s voice rising with measured dignity, magisterially, so that the final line “Alle, alle rings vergehet!” (all, all things must perish) had real punch. Müller-Brachmann also found the sexuality that underpins ‘Fühlt meine Seele’; he sang the word “Herrin” with such passionate intensity.
Hugo Wolf, a music critic, couldn’t stand Brahms. “The true test of a composer is this“, he said. “Can he exult? Wagner can exult. Brahms cannot.” Yet in “Four Serious Songs!, Brahms comes close to transcendence. Clara Schumann had just passed away. Brahms’s mind was focussed on deep fundamentals. Although he was an atheist, he based the songs on biblical texts, so they connect to universal concepts. “All are of dust, and all turn to dust again.”
This cycle makes the most of the lower baritone register, displaying the voice-type in all its glory. “O Tod” intoned Müller-Brachmann, the long vowels reverberating. He’s less convincing on subtleties, like the brittle rising arc on “wie bitter bist du”. Again, Goerne and Quasthoff are benchmarks showing the range of colour and nuance that can be drawn from these austere, dignified, unpretentious songs. Schiff shows how the piano part introduces the powerful transition, from which the voice emerges. Biblical as Brahms’s texts may be, his conclusions are uncompromisingly humanist, almost too ‘modern’ for our image of 19th-century Vienna. “… faith hope and charity. But the greatest of these is charity.”