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 Recording of the Week  Vocal Music by Brahms

No-one broods quite like Matthias Goerne, and if his new recital of Brahms songs makes for a decidedly sombre listening experience, it’s also an absolutely unmissable one. Still billed as a baritone here, his oaky, sturdy voice has taken on darker and more dramatic hues even in the short time that’s elapsed since his shattering recording of Winterreise with Christoph Eschenbach, who also partners him this time round – the vocal and emotional imprints left by recent roles like Wotan (on Jaap van Zweden’s excellent ongoing Naxos Ring Cycle) and King Mark in Tristan really come home to roost, particularly in the big declamatory songs like Nos. 4 & 5 in Op. 32. He’s still capable of extraordinary delicacy, though, floating high Fs with ease in the first of the Vier ernste Gesänge: I’m a sucker for larger voices that retain their potency even when reining things right in, particularly in Lieder, and the increasingly ethereal repetitions of ‘Wonnevoll!’ in the final song of Op. 32 had me in bits.

Christoph Eschenbach & Matthias Goerne
Christoph Eschenbach & Matthias Goerne

There’s a special sort of alchemy in his partnership with Eschenbach, too (as anyone who’s heard that Winterreise disc will probably attest), to the extent that it often feels as if we’re listening to a single performer; both are unfailingly responsive to the predominantly sober texts, but in such a way that every sentence unfolds organically rather than being punctuated by self-conscious word-painting. (The booklet doesn’t identify what instrument Eschenbach’s using, but the brightness in the treble and virile smokiness lower down mirror his singer’s voice quite uncannily, and the range of colours he draws from it – encompassing everything from concert-hall opulence in Op. 32 to almost Erard-like sonorities in parts of the Vier ernste Gesänge – is nothing short of extraordinary).

We learned a couple of weeks ago that Goerne’s next project for Harmonia Mundi will be a disc of Mahler’s Frühe Lieder (in the arrangements by Luciano Berio), which struck me as an ideal sequel to the ripe Romanticism on show here. Stay tuned for the autumn…

After an hour of such sublime Weltschmerz, a new release of the Liebeslieder from the Verbier Festival was the perfect antidote: there’s such a pervasive sense of holiday spirit here that you can virtually taste the crisp Swiss mountain air. Written as a bit of light relief after Brahms had finished work on the German Requiem, many of the songs in the first collection have a distinct whiff of the Bierkeller about them, peppered with rollocking Ländler and earthy, pragmatic discussions of matters of the heart. Scored for the rather unusual forces of solo SATB (in various combinations) and piano duet, Brahms originally intended them for domestic enjoyment rather than for the concert-hall (though the often fiendish piano-writing, despatched here with insouciant panache by James Levine and Yefim Bronfman, does give one pause for thought!); the four starry singers are perfectly cast, sparking off one another like a top-notch string quartet and achieving that rare feat of blending seamlessly when required but also contrasting quite beautifully throughout. And most appealingly of all, everyone just sounds like they’re having enormous fun.

These aren’t, as I thought when I test-drove the recording ‘blind’, especially recent recordings, actually dating from 2003: the first giveaway was the instantly recognisable presence of the bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff (who took an early retirement from public performance four years ago), and Magdalena Kožená's distinctive mezzo is notably brighter and more soprano-ish here than it’s become of late as she’s taken on heavier repertoire.

Each singer also contributes a rewarding solo spot; Matthew Polenzani’s sweet, vernal tenor gives particular pleasure in the ‘Persian’ settings which open the disc, whilst Quasthoff brings a introspective gravitas that’s not unlike Goerne to the autumnal Op. 94 songs towards the end of the recital.

Brahms: Vier ernste Gesänge

Matthias Goerne (baritone) & Christoph Eschenbach (piano)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Brahms: Lieder & Liebeslieder Waltzes

Andrea Rost (soprano), Magdalena Kožená (mezzo), Matthew Polenzani (tenor), Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone), Yefim Bronfman & James Levine (piano duet)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC