Brahms at Verbier: notes for a Deutsche Grammophon CD

Fresh from his exertions with his Requiem, Brahms nonchalantly dismissed his first set of Liebeslieder-Waltzer in a letter to his publisher as ‘trifles’, though he was also pretty confident of their appeal. ‘I will gladly risk being called an ass if [they] don’t give a few people pleasure’, he added. Together with their sequel collection Neue Liebeslieder-Waltzer, they have indeed done that, and did so from the start: in response to popular demand, Brahms also composed a four-hand piano arrangement, and later an orchestral suite. His labelling of the original score as being for ‘piano and voices ad libitum’ seemed like an invitation – particularly to amateurs – to present these convivial waltz-songs in whatever form people chose. These were the works which brought him fame and fortune.

It is thought that the emotional stimulus for this music may have been Brahms’s infatuation with Clara Wieck’s daughter Julie Schumann, whose betrothal to a young Italian nobleman came as a shock to the composer, even though she had never reciprocated his interest. But the instruction on the first page makes the musical stimulus plain: ‘Im Ländler-Tempo’. Brahms had spent his first few years in Vienna immersed in editing Schubert’s unpublished compositions, among which were two books of Ländler dances, and the Liebeslieder were his creative response: this was his way of preserving the Schubertian heritage. But there was another influence, in the form of Waltz King Johann Strauss, and most clearly in the ninth song ‘Am Donaustrande’ (‘On the banks of the Danube’) with its echoes of the Blue Danube Waltz. Later in life Brahms gave a young admirer his autograph accompanied by the opening bars of the dance, to which he appended the words ‘Leider nicht von Brahms’ (‘Alas not by Brahms’). But as the Brahms scholar David Brodbeck has shown, the Liebeslieder embody a fusion of popular and art-music styles which was uniquely Brahms’s own. The lyrics are translations by the German philosopher-poet Georg Friedrich Daumer of Eastern-European folk poems, and have their own integrity.

Brahms tinkered with the order of his eighteen love-songs – and even with their keys – until they went to press, and considered releasing them in two or even three books before settling for just one. Yet, delivered in one passionate outpouring without a break, they cohere wonderfully. Sometimes the same emotional thread runs through two or three consecutive songs, other times there’s an abrupt change of register, but – working on a tiny canvas, with many songs lasting barely a minute – Brahms finds a perfect form and colouring for each one. In ‘O die Frauen’ the sinuous melodic line has a comically rueful quality, and in ‘O wie sanft die Quelle’ the momentum comes in gentle waves, with the voices overlapping each other. The tempestuous choral disturbance of ‘Ein dunkeler Schacht ist Liebe’ gives way to the infinite tenderness of the tenor solo in ‘Nicht wandle, mein Licht’; ‘Es bebet das Gestrauche’ – with its lovely symbolism of the bird enmeshed in a tangle of amorous pains and desires – closes the sequence with breath-taking delicacy. Indeed, the craftsmanship of these miniatures is highly ingenious, with the harmonic gear-shifts subtly negotiated, the instrumental accompaniment acting as an equal partner, and the alternation of male and female duets maintaining a fine balance.

Composed five years later, the Neue Liebeslieder draw for their lyrics on the same collection, Daumer’s Polydora, but are altogether more austere. And they have a rigorously symmetrical structure: the fourteen waltzes are formed into two groups of seven, each group beginning and ending with a movement for the full quartet and enclosing four movements for solo voice. The emotions are darker than those of the earlier set, with the destructiveness of love dwelt on more than its pleasures: ‘Finstere Schatten der Nacht’ has an operatic magnificence, and in ‘Flammenauge, dunkles Haar’, Brahms’s musical evocation of love’s power to turn the sun’s heat to ice, and day into night, seems bursting with regret. His setting of Goethe’s poem ‘Nun, ihr Musen, genug!’ (‘Now, you muses, enough!’) encompasses all the emotional paradoxes the work has moved through, with a serene resignation – at the climactic point expressed a cappella – which adumbrates the mood at the close of Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier.

The accompanied solo song is essentially about intimacy, not solitude, and Brahms’s mastery of this art-form allowed him to create a unique amalgam of profundity and pathos, with the music magically mirroring the words. And the source of the words in the first two solo songs delivered here by Matthew Polenzani was a favourite one for many composers of the German-speaking world: German translations of the poems of the thirteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz inspired composers including Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wolf, Strauss and Schoenberg, to try their hand. The first sung here addresses the breeze playing round the beloved’s head, while the Liebestod celebrated in the second turns on that quintessentially Persian opposition between fresh-flowering roses and a parched desert. The third is the setting of a poem by Felix Schumann, the youngest of Clara’s children, who was already suffering from the tuberculosis which was to kill him: this song was a loving gesture by Brahms for which Clara was touchingly grateful.

As time went on, the mood in Brahms’s songs grew more sombre and reflective, with the baritone set (Opus 94) constituting his own version of a Winterreise. ‘Mit vierzig Jahren’ – ‘At forty years old’ – indicates what was for men in the nineteenth century an age when one started looking back, and Brahms was pleased to note that the friend for whom he had written it burst into tears in the final verse; the ‘beloved shade’ whose support is invoked in ‘Steig auf’ was said by Clara Schumann to be that of Brahms’s mother. And while the roses-dew-kisses-tears imagery of ‘Sapphische Ode’ (Sapphic indicated its strophic form) inspires an ecstatic musical distillation, the nihilism of ‘Kein Haus, kein Heimat’ blows itself angrily out in just twenty-five seconds.

High in the francophone Swiss Alps, the Verbier Festival has long functioned as a musical laboratory in which hitherto untried combinations of singers and instrumentalists are put together, and this live recording reflects that tradition at its most successful. The voices here provide vividly contrasting timbres, while at the same time blending very satisfyingly in the four-part songs. And James Levine is the most sensitive of accompanists, allowing each soloist to shine in his or her own way. Thus does Matthew Polenzani’s sweet tenor vibrato contrast with Thomas Quasthoff’s darkly expressive baritone, while the virginal purity of Andrea Rost’s high-lying solos sets off the inherently dramatic quality of those by Magdalena Kozena. When Yefim Bronfman brings his feline power to the four-hand line-up, the ensemble really takes off.


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