Brahms: Lieder

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WORKS: Lieder
PERFORMER: Robert Holl (bass), András Schiff (piano)
Robert Holl, in his written preface, reminds us that Brahms could not bear to hear his Four Serious Songs performed, so deeply did they touch him. His own performance makes the fact unforgettable. Its stature, towering above any recorded in the last decade, is partly due to the range and flexibility of Holl’s bass voice, partly to the insight of András Schiff’s piano playing, and partly to Holl’s ability to absorb himself entirely in the vision of each song.


He gives stern definition to Luther’s mighty fortress of a translation of the biblical words from Ecclesiastes. And he burrows deep into the anger, sorrow, and finally exultation of Brahms’s own responses to them. The selection of songs which makes up the main body of the recital is not exactly frivolous either. Not a word is lost, as Holl takes the full weight and worth of Brahms’s settings: in ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’ (At the Graveyard) a world of pain is contracted into the single word gewesen (deceased), and Holl and Schiff together search out the darkest depths of Heine’s ‘Meerfahrt’ (Sea Voyage), Brahms’s own Isle of the Dead.


Holl’s great bass can, on the other hand, melt down to the almost incorporeal as, in perfectly controlled half-voice, he lies Alone in the Meadow (‘Feldeinsamkeit’) or, with Schiff’s fleet fingers, recreates the quality of moonlight in ‘Die Mainacht’ (May Night) and in their evanescent ‘Ständchen’ (Serenade). Hilary Finch