Lieder (Fischer-Dieskau/ Moore (record 1), Sawallisch (2-5), Barenboim (6-7)]
In his 203 songs composed between 1851 and 1896 Brahms is revealed as a painstaking craftsman, often a miniaturist, of jewelled perfection. A fitting case could be made for them as the mainspring of his works. High time, then, for an authoritative Fischer-Dieskau box containing all the songs for a man’s voice, in chronological order, complete with tests and translations.
This isn't it. For a start, there are no translations; the quota of errors is economically compiled from the German text alone. The time sequence has some curious kinks, such as the separation, by three sides and ten years, of thematically linked songs (op.19 nos.2 and 3). The first disc turns out to be our old friend ASD 630; it was thoughtful of EMI not to spoil our surprise by giving this away. It is odd to offer three pianists, in order of seniority, as if the first two had been carried off exhausted like the fiddler in Dickens. Equally kinky is the process of sexual selection of these 149 songs. It seems barbarous to cut Herr von Falkenstein, for example. True, it is a duologue; but then so are Von ewiger Liebe, which is included, and Vergebliches Ständchen, for which we listen in vain. Sapphische Ode too falls by the wayside, rather like its subjects. Perhaps this curious gap was left by a misunderstanding, that title surely defines the poet’s preferred form, not the singer’s. The male Magelone-Lieder have also been excised, presumably because they have not been deleted (SAN 291 with Richter). Yet Therese, despite her titular femininity, is covered here – undesirably, in my view. And so on.
Of course, all this carping would be merely comparative if the performances were superlative. I think the pianists’ are. So indeed is much of the singing; but not unequivocally so. It is here that doubts and voices may be raised, on both sides; and that phrase conveys my own reservations, on a dozen sides. If you admire the typographical style of Brahms interpretation, where selected words and phrases are so to speak set in italics or capitals, with exclamation marks and underlinings to match, then here is the very set for you. Examples abound. Sometimes they sound arbitrary: thus Vor dem Fenster why the sudden pressure on “Gasse”, which is by no means a main issue? Sometimes they seem exaggerated; thus the stressed “Jammer” in Magyarisch surely makes both singer and song sound more serious than Brahms intended.
But again all these are trifles compared with the persistent vocal rendition of keyboard dynamics. This may call for a word of explanation. Throughout the Brahms duo sonatas, the violin, cello or clarinet (or viola) parts have separate dynamic indications. So have the voice parts of the early songs. But such marks soon faded, and by the 1870s singers are mainly left to their own devices. These work quite well on the first of these discs, made in 1964. But on the other six, Fischer-Dieskau’s stresses, swells and outbursts seem to coincide with those of the piano so closely as to rule out mere coincidence.
About gustiness, non est disputandum, perhaps; and the practice may even he good in theory. But I think it is mistaken, for the following reasons. First, it is clear even front the early songs (e.g. op.7 no.3, bars 20-26) that Brahms did not always envisage so close a correspondence. Next, the persistent parallelism risks making the music less expressive, by forfeiting voice-keyboard contrast. Further, it sounds (however misleadingly) more concerned with vocal dominance than with mutual partnership: should an artistic union seek to maintain its differentials quite so vocally? Finally, the resulting verbal emphasis seems refractory not only to the Brahms lied style throughout but also often to the plain sense of his chosen texts. Specifically: were his keyboard crescendos really designed to accentuate and intensify such phrases as “immer nur ahnen” in the Goethe Serenade, or “so zusammensteh'n” in Geheimnis, to select only two instances from the scores available?
If not, then whole undiscovered tracts of great songwriting still remain to he explored and recorded. Are there no British merchant venturers in this Elizabethan age?
The Musical Times, Jul. 1975 (pp. 628-629) © the estate of eric sams