Brahms Unwrapped: Half of Sixteen and Two Anonymous Pianists

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Clara Schumann, and Brahms: Members of The Sixteen, Christopher Glynn and John Reid (piano), Harry Christophers (conductor). Hall One, Kings Place, London. 16.3.2012 (MB)
Julie Cooper, Charlotte Mobbs (soprano)
Alexandra Gibson, Martha McLorinan (alto)
Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell (tenor)
Alex Ashworth, Eamonn Dougan (bass)

SchumannSpanische Liebeslieder, op.138, nos 4 and 9
Clara Schumann – Romance in E-flat minor, op.11 no.1
BrahmsZigeunerlieder, op.103
SchumannLiebesfrühling, op.37: ‘So wahr die Sonne scheiner’
Vier Duette, op.78: ‘Tanzlied’
Fantasiestücke, op.12, nos 2 and 3
BrahmsNeues Liebeslieder, op.65

Having previously ‘unwrapped’ Beethoven, Chopin, and Mozart, Kings Place in 2012 is mounting a year-long series, ‘Brahms Unwrapped’. This was the second of two contributions from The Sixteen, or rather members thereof, ‘The Eight’. They offered Brahms’s Zigeunerlieder and Neue Liebeslieder accompanied by vocal and piano works by Robert and Clara Schumann. It made for a relatively short programme, but there are worse things than that.

Two songs from Schumann’s 1849 Spanische Liebeslieder opened the programme. ‘Bedeckt mich mit Blumen’, for two sopranos, made for a slightly staid opening, but ‘Blaue Augen hat das Mädchen’, for tenor and bass, proved livelier, the captivation exerted by the girl’s blue eyes for the two protagonists readily apparent. I am sorry to say that I have never heard, or indeed played, a piece by Clara Schumann that I have wished to re-encounter, and this piano Romance, op.11 no.1, offered no exception. It was actually a better piece than many I have heard from her, but it proved four-square, repetitious, and harmonically unadventurous, never rising above the generically Romantic: pleasant enough, if you like that sort of thing. Alas, I cannot report on the respective contributions of the two pianists, or indeed of particular singers, by name, since the programme gave no indication as to which was which, or to who was performing what.

The Zigeunerlieder opened in rather peculiar fashion, one of the two tenors – I shall call him Tenor I – sounding closer in style to Weill than to Brahms; it worked surprisingly well, but I could not help but wonder whether it were intended. More troublingly, however, Harry Christophers, who now joined the ensemble to conduct, drove the music hard. I am not convinced that it needs a conductor; this evening’s experience suggests otherwise. It tends to flow more easily, to sound more ‘natural’ in expression, without. ‘Lieber Gott, du weißt, wie oft bereut ich hab’ benefited from commendable attention to detail, yet, like so many of the songs, sounded over-determined. ‘Kommt dir manchmal in den Sinn’ relaxed somewhat, however, and was all the better for it, permitting one to relish Brahms’s harmonies and their implications. Likewise, there was a nice sense of sad mystery to ‘Horch, der Wind klagt in den Zweigen traurig sacht,’ though there was some especially ropy singing from Tenor II here. Tenor I sounded strained in the closing ‘Rote Abendwolken ziehn am Firmament’; indeed, I was taken aback throughout at the problems both tenors experienced.

Schumann’s ‘So wahr die Sonne scheiner,’ a Rückert setting for alto and bass duet, sounded rather lovely: modest, but heartfelt, a welcome change from the over-determination of the conducted works. ‘Tanzlied,’ for soprano and tenor, benefited from a winning lilt to the waltz and its progress; the soprano shone, but the tenor again proved a bit of a trial. Two of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke followed, given by whichever was the pianist who had not performed the piece by Clara. ‘Aufschwung’ was dextrous, though it sounded closer to Mendelssohn than to a progenitor of Brahms. The performance was not especially probing, but pleasant enough, if short-breathed; it stopped very abruptly. ‘Warum?’ exhibited a fine piano touch, though it was perhaps unduly insistent.

The Neue Liebeslieder are of course for piano duet; the new piano texture was both welcome in itself and well navigated by the pianists, richer without ever becoming occluded. As for the vocal performances, much the same could be said as for the Zigeunerlieder. Christophers needed to calm down, and really had no business in part-conducting a piece such as ‘An jeder Hand die Finger’, for soprano solo (rather good, if somewhat bright in tone for Brahms). At least he desisted for most of the other solo songs. Even, though, where a piece went less hell for leather, for instance in ‘Finstere Schatten der Nacht’, it tended to emerge too moulded, audibly as well as visually. ‘Weiche Gräser im Revier’ was marred by Tenor II, ‘Ich kose süß mit der und der’ by Tenor I, who offered charmless, often out-of-tune, bellowing. A pity, given the quality of much of the rest of the singing. ‘Am Donaustrande, da steht ein Haus,’ from the op.52 Liebeslieder-Walzer, was a winning encore, more gemütlich than pretty much anything that had gone before. On the whole, however, the evening lacked Viennese charm and idiom; instead, we were left with an impression that Evensong had preceded the performances. To have had the singers stand around the piano, without conductor, might well have offered a better starting-point.

Mark Berry