Over the last decade and more, no Lieder recitals have given me more intense pleasure than those by the tenor Christoph Prégardien. Though he is now in his mid 60s, and his voice has inevitably lost some of its former bloom and flexibility with age, this Brahms disc, recorded in 2020, confirms that the sheer intelligence of Prégardien’s performances, his immaculate diction and the perfect weight and colour he gives to each phrase, still conjure revelatory interpretations from everything he sings. The collection sees the start of what Naxos plans to be a complete survey of Brahms’s songs. How much of the series will be allotted to Prégardien isn’t clear, but with Ulrich Eisenlohr as his partner, the communicative power and mastery of every nuance of this opening instalment make one hope that the pair will be regularly involved.
The four groups of songs cover almost a quarter of a century in Brahms’s development, from the nine songs of Op 32, completed in 1864, to the five of Op 105, which date to 1888. As Eisenlohr points out in his very thorough sleeve notes, the poems that Brahms set are rarely of the highest class – in that respect he differed in his approach to Lieder writing from his 19th-century predecessors, such as Schubert and Schumann; Gottfried Keller and Theodor Storm are probably the best known of the writers represented here. But each of these sets mixes and matches material from a variety of sources: Op 32, for instance, juxtaposes German translations of the 14th-century Persian lyric poet Hafez with poems by the early Romantic August von Platen-Hallermünde, while Op 43 includes a text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the folk collection that Mahler would later explore so extensively.
However lowly or mundane the words, though, Prégardien treats them with the respect he would give to a poem by Heine or Goethe, just as Brahms extracts every morsel of meaning in his settings. It’s fair to say that there is no intrinsically great music here; what we have, though, are outstanding performances of all 24 songs, each the product of Prégardien’s craft and his lifetime’s experience in this repertoire.
This week’s other picks
There is more outstanding Brahms from the clarinettist Michael Collins on the BIS label, with the two sonatas Op 120, which were written for his instrument just three years before the composer’s death. The release marks Collins’s 60th birthday later this month, and the sonatas provide a perfect showcase for his creamy tone and superb technical facility; Stephen Hough is the equally immaculate pianist. Their performance of the first sonata, in F minor, is intense and truly searching, that of the second, in E flat, lighter and more relaxed, while as a bonus they add Collins’s own “adaptation” of Brahms’s A major violin sonata Op 100, a more successful translation than one could ever imagine.