Brahms: Complete Songs, Vol. 2

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LABELS: Brahms
WORKS: Complete songs, Vol. 2: Ophelia-Lieder; plus songs from Opp. 6, 47, 57, 59, 69, 85, 95, 107, Wo023 & Wo033
PERFORMER: Christine Schäfer (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)

The second volume of Hyperion’s complete Brahms songs is the generous and imaginatively planned anthology that we have come to expect from these important series compiled by Graham Johnson – witness his excellent Schubert and Schumann series. And it comes, as ever, with detailed and richly cross-referenced notes and essays.
This time the two focal points are the Ophelia-Lieder, and six so-called ‘Mädchenlieder’, which Johnson feels Brahms would have intended as a group. Flanking them are settings of the ardent love poetry of Georg Friedrich Daumer, to which soprano Christine Schäfer brings a raw yet tender sensuality; and two groups of folksong settings, sung and played with a perfect sense of scale and disarming simplicity. There are curiosities here, too, among these youthful songs: a wonderful reveille of a ‘Juchhe!’, and ‘Die Müllerin’ – a setting of Chamisso (poet of Frauenliebe und -leben) which is to my mind something of a Schöne Müllerin manqué.
Brahms composed the Ophelia songs for a production of Hamlet in Prague, where they might have been sung unaccompanied. Schäfer is here ideally cast: she sings them very much as a singing actress would, artful in her apparent artlessness, and meticulous of diction.
Undoubtedly, Brahms was attracted to the expressive power and distilled longing within the traditional Serbian folk songs which form three of the ‘Mädchenlieder’. Their pungent Eastern European inflections are relished by Johnson and by Schäfer who sings them in engagingly girlish tones, yet without any hint of the coy or the arch. Hilary Finch