Monday 24 February 2014

Alastair Miles - Lieder by Wolf and Brahms

Lieder by Wolf and Brahms - Alastiar Miles, Marie-Noelle Kendall - SIGCD0369
Lieder by Wolf & Brahms: Alistair Miles and Marie Noelle Kendall: Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 9 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Drama & intensity on this disc of serious songs from bass Alistair Miles

This new disc on Signum Classics from bass Alistair Miles and pianist Marie-Noelle Kendall pairs songs by Johannes Brahms with songs by Hugo Wolf. The recital ends with Wolf's Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo and Brahms's Vier ernste Gesange, Op.121 and starts with three of Wolf's Goethe settings. In the middle are a further five Brahms songs; the programme is held together by the way both composers used the baritone or bass voice to explore the more serious complex thoughts and meditations on life and God.

For a disc with such an unassuming title, Lieder by Wolf and Brahms, things starts with a bang. Hugo Wolf's Prometheus is a huge piece which almost breaks the bounds of the lied form. It is a setting of a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832) which deals with the demi-god Prometheus's exultation at his own achievements. The CD booklet rightly refers to the song as 'These testosterone-driven 174 bars'. After a big dramatic piano introduction from Marie-Noelle Kendall, Alistair Miles comes on with vividly dramatic declamation to match, the result is almost operatic. When things quieten down Miles gives us a superb combination of full voice and text, throughout the disc his diction is admirably vivid and it is clear that for all the power of his voice, for Miles performing these songs is as much about the text. The result, in Prometheus is a big-boned, vibrant tour de force.

Miles and Kendall follow this with another large-scale Goethe setting by Wolf, Grenzen der Menschheit, written a week after Prometheus. This is more low key, reminding us that Man's life is brief and transient, buffeted by the fates. But Miles gives a no less vibrant performance, still with an admirable feeling for the words. Even in the more powerful moments as the song builds towards the end, Miles and Kendall bring out the song's bleakness.

Wolf put Prometheus and Grenzen der Menschheit at the end of his Goethe songbook and there is a certain feeling of 'follow that if you can' when the last music dies down. It is perhaps testament to Miles's artistry and commitment that he does follow it, using the two songs as a way in to a recital which takes songs by Brahms and Wolf all of which explore the human condition in some way. Another Goethe setting forms the last song in the first Wolf group. Der Sanger is one of Wolf's songs based on Goethe's lyrics from his novel Wilhelm Meister which were also set by Schubert. In Der Sanger the blind harpist sings of his art, and Miles makes it sardonically characterful. His voice dark-toned and intense, perhaps highlighting the irony that in the novel the harpist is a damaged figure who commits suicide, and Wolf himself would struggle with life before reaching an early, syphilitic death.

Brahms's O wusst ich doch den Weg zuruck Op.63 No.6, sets a poem by his friend Klaus Groth (1819 - 1899) which explores the relationship between man and his childhood. Nostalgic and elusive, the song is simpler than the Wolf (Brahms wrote many songs deliberately within the capabilities of the amateur performers in his circle), but Miles's performance is no less intense. His lovely rich dark tones render the song's nostalgia beautifully. Auf dem Kirchhofe is a setting by Brahms of a poem by Detlev von Liliencron (1844 - 1909), bringing forth the idea of death as a release. After a dramatic introduction from the piano, the song is big boned and declamatory with Miles and Kendall highlighting the drama. The same theme continues in the next song, Feldeinsamkeit to words by Hermann Allmers (1821 - 1902) in which the poet dreams of death offering the bliss of freedom from time. Miles shapes the vocal line very finely, and he and Kendall bring out the folk-like feeling of Brahms's setting. (Though the poet did not feel that Brahms had made the song folk-like enough).

Verrat is a ballad which tells the story of a man who slays his beloved's lover in revenge for her infidelity. The poem is by Karl Lemcke (1831 - 1913). The setting highlights the lovely deep, dark tones of Miles's voice. He gives a vividly dramatic performance, bringing out the narrative of the story as the ballad setting develops from apparent simplicity to greater complexity. Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen is bleakly austere with lovely spare textures. In the song Brahms sets words by Georg Friedrich Daumer about a poet who dying of love.

The final two groups of songs on the disc deal more with the afterlife than death itself. First Wolf's Michelangelo Lieder setting three poems by Michelangelo (1475 - 1564) meditating on man's relationship to posterity. Wohl denk' ich oft reflects on the poets renown and his love (either for God or for an unnamed person). The song is soberly dramatic, with Miles singing in intense dark tones, shaping the lines finely. The result has a certain statuesque quality. Alles endet, was entstehet reflects on the bleak thought that everything passes away. The song's spare textures highlighted by Miles' vibrant and intense performance. Miles and Kendall's vividly engaged performance brings a sense of bleak resignation to the song's conclusion. In Fuhlt meine Seele entire thoughts of God seem concentrated in his mistress's eyes. Miles sings with a powerfully expressive line, bringing a lovely Autumnal glow to the song with a beautifully expressive piano accompaniment.

In the Vier ernste Gesange Op. 121 Brahms set his own selection of texts from the Lutheran bible, the first three coming from Ecclesiastes and the last from Corinthians. The first three have a rather bleak, nihilistic quality, only softened in the final song which sets the words of St Paul about love. Clara Schumann had suffered a stroke in March 1896 and Brahms wrote the songs partly in anticipation of his friend's death. Though the songs exist in a version for female voice, they were premiered in Brahms's presence by a Dutch baritone and I think that the dark intensity of the low male voice brings out the songs special quality.

Denn es gehet dem Menschen wie dem Vieh is full of lyrical melancholy, with gusts of more dramatic music, and the influence of Brahms's studies in early counterpoint can be felt here. Ich wandte mich has a feeling of dramatic narrative, vividly projected with some lovely lyrical moments, all supported by a finely crafted accompaniment. O Tod starts with a wonderfully dramatic gesture, but then becomes subtler in character with Miles and Kendall projecting a strong firmness of intent, of belief perhaps? The final song combines dramatic bravura with expressive dignity. Again the performs bring out a firmness of commitment as the song develops in complexity.

These are all richly satisfying performances, with Miles combining a strong feeling for the text with dramatic intensity of voice, all allied to Kendall's fine piano. The recital makes a fascinating exploration of the way the two late 19th century composers explored the human condition using the remarkable qualities of the low male voice.

Hugo Wolf (1860 - 1903) - Prometheus [8.12]
Hugo Wolf (1860 - 1903) - Grenzen dre Menschheit [6.55]
Hugo Wolf (1860 - 1903) - Der Sänger [6.47]
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) - O wüsst ich doch den Weg zurük, Op.63 No.8 [3.11]
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) - Auf dem Kirchhofe, Op.105 No.4 [2.52]
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) - Feldeinsamkeit, Op.86 No.2 [3.04]
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) - Verrat, Op.105 No.5 [3.50]
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) - Nich mehr zu dir zu gehen, Op.32 No.2 [3.22]  
Hugo Wolf (1860 - 1903) - Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo [11.14]
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) - Vier ernste Gesänge, Op.121 [17.04]
Alastair Miless (bass)
MArie-Noelle Kendall (piano)
Recorded in the Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, 24-26 January 2013

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