Pianist Michael McMahon is the preferred partner to many of Canada’s finest singers. He has performed regularly throughout Canada, in Europe, Japan and the USA with singers such as Catherine Robbin, [...]
They spoke about it
Throughout his life, Johannes Brahms cultivated the Lied like a private garden growing around the edges of his great symphonic and chamber works. Months and even years might go by between the composition of a song and its publication, during which time Brahms would reflect on its merits and make refinements. The first collection appeared in 1853; Brahms had just turned 20. The last was published in 1896, just a few months before his death. During the intervening 43 years, he offered 33 collections to the public—some 190 songs in all.
Among the poets he did set, Brahms—the lonely figure tormented by unattainable love who takes consolation in nature—found themes that echoed his own feelings and material that could be transcended by music. Most of his Lieder evoke his deep, inner sentiments: the ache of unrequited love, the loneliness of the human condition, the inescapable finality of life, but also the comfort offered by nature.
The Opuses 69 and 86 of this recording are wonderfully representative of these “Brahmsian bouquets.” For example, Op.86 begins with a poem in which Brahms probably heard a wistful echo of Clara Schumann’s attitude when, nearly twenty years his senior, she was faced with his declaration of love. In opposing the moods of the two characters, Brahms creates an effect worthy of the greatest minimalists. The careful progression created by the songs’ order is worth noting—the beloved’s refusal in the first, leading through various wanderings, and finally to Yearning for Death (No.6, Todessehnen).
Opuses 91 and 121 stand out both in the choice of texts and in their musical treatment. Finalized in 1884, Op.91 contains only two songs, but they are songs in which two alto “voices”—one human, the other instrumental—perform a dialogue above the piano accompaniment. The songs were composed nearly twenty years apart. The older one, Geistliches Wiegenlied (No.2, Sacred Lullaby), was composed in 1864 for the baptism of the son of his best friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, whose wife’s beautiful contralto voice inspired the idea of uniting alto voice and viola in song. Twenty years later, Brahms found another text that lent itself to this game, a poem by Rückert, Gestillte Sehnsucht (No.1, Longing Eased), in which “the whispering wind lulls the world to sleep,” but also the narrator’s longing.
Brahms began Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs, Op.121) in early May 1896 after learning that Clara Schumann had suffered a stroke that would likely prove fatal. Both the biblical texts that Brahms chose and the contrapuntal and orchestral flavour of the piano accompaniment recall the German Requiem. The first three songs, excerpts from Ecclesiastes and Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), evoke different aspects of death. The third opposes the fearsome visage of death for those overly concerned with the secular, with the liberation it represents for those who can detach themselves from earthly matters. And finally, with the famous passage on charity from the First Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians in the fourth, Brahms gives us his ultimate song of hope.
© Guy Marchand
Translation: Peter Christensen