Alastair Miles: Lieder by Wolf & Brahms
Alastair Miles’s gravely sonorous bass is finely attuned to Brahms’s and Wolf’s vocal swansongs, linked by their themes of human futility and mortality – though the Brahms-loathing Wolf would have recoiled from the comparison. In Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge, Miles distils something of the mournful stoicism of Hans Hotter. Other singers, notably Fischer-Dieskau, Thomas Quasthoff and Christian Gerhaher, have brought more human anguish and consolatory tenderness to these profound meditations. But Miles’s oaken depth of tone and amplitude of line are impressive, and ultimately moving.
Occasional worries over pitch become slightly more nagging in the doleful, drooping chromaticisms of Wolf’s Michelangelo songs. In the bleak memento mori of ‘Alles endet, was entstehet’, especially, Miles’s soft singing can lose focus and intensity. That said, he sings with feeling and understanding, if without the specific insights of Fischer-Dieskau or Roman Trekel. Sensitively supported by the pianist Marie-Noëlle Kendall, he builds the third song, ‘Fühlt meine Seele’, to an ardent apotheosis.
In a clutch of Wolf Goethe settings, Miles rails and sneers magnificently in ‘Prometheus’ and majestically ‘bows’ the arching bel canto phrases of ‘Der Sänger’. In ‘Grenzen der Menschheit’ (the philosophical antithesis of ‘Prometheus’) I craved more inwardness and a more concentrated pianissimo. Brahms’s ‘Feldeinsamkeit’ – well sustained but surely too robust – provoked similar misgivings. And by maintaining the same dirge-like tempo throughout ‘Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen’, contrary to Brahms’s markings, Miles and Kendall miss the heightened sexual despair of the central verse. Against that, Miles is a vivid narrator in the grim ballad of homicide, ‘Verrat’, and in his element in the storm-swept ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’. Amid the prevailing slowness and gloom, always a danger in bass recitals, the odd lighter number – say, Brahms’s ‘Ständchen’ – would have been welcome. This is not, perhaps, a disc to play straight through. But it’s a nobly sung recital, confirming that the leading English operatic basso cantante is also a Lieder singer of intelligence and insight.