The tenor Christoph Prégardien is one of the great Lieder singers of today. His Winterreise with Michael Gees at London's Wigmore Hall in 2015 was unforgettable; interestingly, he was just as memorable in decidedly lesser-known Schubert Lieder with Christoph Schnackertz (part of the Hall's complete Schubert lieder serise: review).
Here he is in Brahms, and - joy of joys - this is Volume One of a cycle of complete songs on Naxos, released on December 3, 2021. Prégardien's musical partner here is the excellent Ulrich Eisenlohr, a vastly experienced Lieder pianist. Volume One presents four sets of Lieder written between 1864 and 1888, beginning with the Vier Gesänge, Op. 43, in which two songs featuring strong women frame a pair of laments. Listen to the gentleness of the first lament, 'Die Mainacht' to a poem by Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty (1748–1776). The portagonist holds with them a picture of an ideal lover:
The protagonist is actually a lady, and perhaps we are more used to heairng it sung by one - here's Jessye Norman with Groffrey Parsons, taking - as so often - her time to relish every nuance (although Prégardien and Eisenlohr strike me as truer to Brahms):
For the final song in Op. 43, Brahms mined Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the collection of folk poetry that was to so inspire one Gustav Mahler. In fact, the bold, propulsive rhythms and narrative setting seem themselves to prefigure Mahler:
Six Lieder follow that form Op. 86 (written around 1878/79). This set has a valedictory slant - a farewell to life rather than a lover, though. Certainly we can hear a portrait here of profound stillness (and acceptance of death as part of life on the part of the protagonist) in the second song:
Interesting to compare this with Prégardien's previous recroding with Michael Gees. I find the Naxos one, which has a touch more flow about it, more convincing:
From the existential ruminations of Op. 86, the first song of the five Lieder, Op. 105 blossoms like a rose opening in Summer. That song is one of Brahms' most famous, 'Wie Melodien zieht es mir,' to a poem by Klaus Groth that celebrates creativity. It is full of aspiration, and is beautfully perfumed here. Two minutes of sheer Brahmsian radiance:
Grief in folksong form (remember Brahms had a close link to German folk music) is at the heart of the song 'Klage,' the third of the set:
It's nice the disc ends with teh Op. 32 set, Neun Lieder und Gesänge of 1864. This is a masterly performance. Listen to the strength of Prégardien in the first song, 'Wie rafft’ ich mich auf in der Nacht' (How I struggled to my feet in the night):
These are markedly sophisticated songs, as the second, 'Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen' (Not to go to you any more, text Georg Friedrich Daumer) reveals. There seme to be worlds held with in this song - Eisemlohr's handling of the piano part is particularly impressive in its understanding of Brahms' processes:
Throughout, we hear how well Prégardien's voice is suited to these songs: although atenor, his lower register is markedly robust, which gives his readings a particular, and very individual, strength.
It was excellent programming to close with Op. 32, as these songs, despite the relatively earluy opus number, seem to hold much of the richness and indeed compoisitional techniques of later Brahms: some of the piano writing (particularly perhaps in the sixth and ninth song) particuarly leans in this direction. Let's close with that ninth and final song, the piano weaving a web of advanced, floating harmonies and two-voice counterpoint through which the voice spins its own magic: 'In the manner of a love duet,' as Eisenlohr himself puts it. 'Wie bist du, meine Königin' (How delightful, my queen, to use Naxos' translation) is the title of the song . Surely, surely, thsi is one of Brahms' very finest songs, and what understanding both Prégardien and Eisenlohr show:
Pianist Ulrich Eisenlohr's booklet notes are required reading: lucid, informative and full of insight into both music and poetry. They round off what is the beginning of a clearly important cycle.