Vier ernste Gesänge, op. 121; Fünf Lieder, op. 94. [+ Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte, op. 98; Sechs Lieder von Gellert, op. 48] (Shirley-Quirk/Isepp)
Gellert's Bible-punching verses must have struck many a blow for the Aufklärung. But his boring old tracts led to Beethoven's penetrating new tracts of human experience. The music is a response (almost in the liturgical sense) to the devout words, refining their crude spirit into the essence of humility, awe and remorse. Similarly in op.98 the ideas of separation and longing attain to heights and powers far above the flat and feeble verse. But again the inspiration is drawn from the words, as the sketchbooks illustrate. The vocal reprise achieves not so much the first as the only song-cycle; sad that so revolutionary a form should have stayed so stationary.
But Brahms was powerfully moved by it, as his own music testifies. It is counterbalanced here by his own late songs of separation and longing, op.94. Similarly the Four Serious Songs are his own homilies on life and death, duty and compassion. The piety is in the pity, but nowhere else. When the vox dei stops, the vox humana starts: later Lieder even led to the Führer (cf Strauss op.88 no.1)
So this well-studied programme is an education in itself, which all schools of music should welcome. It not only stands up to repeated examination, but helps us to sit one. With its aid we can (if we like) compare and contrast the views of Beethoven and Brahms on love and fate, and trace the history and development of 19th-century German thought.
In the performance the ideas are as carefully brought out as thought out. This works well in the piano part of the Beethoven cycle for example, where the pastoral imagery of birdsong and sunset is agreeably depicted. But the broad brush of his vocal writing seems less suited to point-making; thus the stress on “du” in the last section would be high on my list of don'ts. The Lied style is to underline, not overrule. Its creative process begins with the word; even in early Beethoven, the preaching starts with a text. We need to feel therefore that the recital could have been a recitation; that the verse was in each performer's mind for its own sake, as it was in the composer's, before ever a finger was lifted or a voice raised.
So John Shirley-Quirk is at his admirable best in those musing moments when the poetry is allowed to speak or sing for itself. In this mood, only Sapphische Ode is disappointing; it is entitled to a tenderer and less virile touch. But where the restraint is less evident, the constraint is more so. I missed the relaxed and easy familiarity with language, style and genre that makes this singer's Saga debut disc sound so superlative still. If that vital and vivid vein could have been transfused from Stanford et al to Beethoven et seq it would sustain a Lieder singer of world class.
Martin Isepp maintains his growing reputation as a Lieder accompanist (earned e.g. by his recent record with Sheila Armstrong) though he too could be more audibly aware of the poetry of the songs. Anthony Payne's notes stand up well on such scores. The words are worst served by the translation supplied. The idea of bringing “many a soft piece to the bridal bed” might have made the beloved even more distant. Brahms gets his maiden plumped into his “lap” (Schoss) instead of being left in the castle (Schloss) where she belongs. He is also made to ask for his “yearning” (das Sehnen) to be strengthened, when it is only his sinews (die Sehnen) that need stiffening. The second stanza of Sapphische Ode is crassly omitted; and so on. If the word-sheet has only written-down value, what price appreciation?
The Musical Times, Jun., 1971 (p. 560) © the estate of eric sams