BRAHMS Complete Songs Vol 8 (Harriet Burns)
At heart, if not always in practice, a man of the people, Brahms engaged deeply with folk song throughout his life. He intended his collection of 49 Deutsche Volkslieder – seven of which are included here – as his creative testament. Time and again his own songs blur the boundaries between folk song and art song, as, say, Schumann’s Lieder rarely do. Listening ‘blind’ to this disc you’d be forgiven for thinking that ‘Die Trauernde’ and the doleful ‘Sehnsucht’ were genuine folk melodies. The reverse is true of the exquisite ‘In stiller Nacht’, with its gently nagging dislocation between voice and piano (‘Brahms at both his most perverse and most inspired’, as Graham Johnson comments in his typically rewarding note).
Like Mahler after him, Brahms was profoundly sympathetic to the sufferings of common, downtrodden humanity. One of his favourite themes, as in so many songs here, was the deserted or bereaved girl. Buoyed by Johnson’s acutely judged accompaniments, the fresh-toned young soprano Harriet Burns, on her CD debut, spins a pure line and responds sensitively to the echt-Brahmsian moods of loneliness, regret and pathos, whether in the austerely obsessive ‘Anklänge’ (its high line beautifully sustained) or the tender ‘Agnes’. Yet while Burns’s musing inwardness is often apt, I sometimes wanted stronger projection, including sharper German consonants. In the turbulent seascape ‘Vom Strande’ – another melding of art song and folk song – Burns is merely plaintive where the German soprano Juliane Banse (CPO, A/02) is passionately despairing. The text and music of ‘Parole’, with its echoing horn calls, at least holds out hope that the girl will be united with her huntsman lover. Burns seems dolefully resigned to a bleaker fate.
That said, singer and pianist vividly convey the gradual shift from anxiety to exultation in the tiny ‘Heimkehr’, and take their chances in the rare songs when the spirit lightens: say, in the teasing post-coital languor of ‘Spanisches Lied’, its slow bolero sway precisely caught by Johnson, or in the uninhibited rusticity of ‘Der Schmied’, where Burns lustily employs her full voice. In the Deutsche Volkslieder, several sung here as duets, she and tenor Robin Tritschler nicely balance artlessness and telling characterisation. They make the song of a dying girl ‘Schwesterlein, Schwesterlein’ almost unbearably poignant. Before the touching envoi of ‘In stiller Nacht’, the young lovers outwit protective mother in the blithe, faintly risqué duet ‘Wie komm’ ich denn zur Tür herein’. It’s characterised with gusto and humour. And after so much loss and tragedy, humour, plus a happy ending, are just what’s needed.