Simon Bode and Graham Johnson: "The Songs of Johannes Brahms, Volume 3"
Texts and translations. Hyperion CD J33123
Aimez-vous Brahms? Not if you're a tenor, apparently. The breed studiously avoids Brahms on disc, even the songs composed with their voice type in mind.
Pianist Graham Johnson, in the third installment of his planned complete Brahms song survey, has ended that drought. He teams up here with a promising newcomer, German tenor Simon Bode, to burnish the composer's complex output with the glint of youth. Even when the singer's inexperience intrudes, it is rewarding to hear these twenty-seven songs in their original keys, and in a flavor that suggests vulnerability and that Romantic staple — a word more often sung about than truly characterized — Sehnsucht (longing).
With his radiant light-tenor timbre, Bode seems as flexible and sensitive as Ian Bostridge and Mark Padmore, who would both make strong Brahms candidates. Many listeners will find Bode's tone even more attractive. His most effective performances include a supremely gentle "Lerchengesang," the lovely "Magyarisch" (true, a bit one-sided in its softness) and "Serenade," from Opus 70. The tenor enlivens some of the folk tunes that make up so much of Brahms's song literature, especially "Die Sonne scheint nicht mehr" and "Es steht ein Lind," both from Wo033.
On reaching the Brahms Lullaby (Opus 49, no. 4), the composer's most famous tune, Johnson's program note laments the many "awful arrangements" that have been inflicted on it. True, pop treatments have made this cradle song maudlin, but Johnson and Bode overrefine it, in ways that typify a good bit of their work on this disc.
The sluggish tempo and unrelieved piano, both undoubtedly fine, are more suited to the nursery than to a recital, as is Bode's unvarying use of head voice, better known in the higher range as falsetto. One has only to hear a version of the lullaby (or several other of these songs) by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, such as his recording with Wolfgang Sawallisch, to appreciate the value of contrast, the dialectic of light and shadow, folk tune and art — sensitivity without sameness.
Among other songs, "Der Wanderer," "Es hing ein Reif" and "An den Mond" are astoundingly slow; a journey becomes a meditation, and contemplation grows obsessive. Too often the pianist stints on rubato, punctuation and contrast, while Bode seems to be impersonating a countertenor in his adherence to head tone. That tendency may reflect technical problems; aside from pitch trouble in the lower range, the tenor does not shift easily between registers, and his attempts to cover or darken the tone above the staff are awkward.
In one of Brahms's particular challenges, "An einer Äolsharfe," performers sometimes overdo the gentle rustling effects of the breeze, at the expense of the mood shifts. Johnson's notes refer to the famous Hugo Wolf song by the same name, and it is conceivable that the interpretation here is influenced by the compulsive whispering mood of Wolf's treatment of this text. The fuzziness here is further exaggerated by the unvarying vocal coloring, making it hard to forget the more robust, Latin flavor brought to the song by another engaging young tenor, Emilio Pons, a performance so far available only on YouTube.
DAVID J. BAKER
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