Hugo Wolf, who eked a subsistence from music journalism, detested Johannes Brahms. "The true test of a composer", he told someone, "is this : Can he exult? Wagner can exult, Brahms cannot ".
The death of Clara Schumann, and his own impending final illness focussed Brahms's mind sharply. The result was one of the most moving cycles in the whole song repertoire, Vier ernste Gesänge, the Four Serious Songs.
For texts, the grumpy old atheist turned again to the Bible. But note how he doesn't revert to pious Biedermeier sentimentality. Death reduces all to nothing. "Mensch hat nichts mehr denn, das Vieh". Status and material possessions are vanity. Like beasts, we all wind up in the same place, as dust. The world is filled with the dispossessed, oppressed by those in power.
Then the first transition : O Tod, goes the baritone. Some singers sing this with such dark majesty, your heart stops for a moment, while the word resonates. But note, Brahms switches from sonority to brittle, lean "i" sounds that scuttle forward : "wie bitter bist du?". The piano becomes pensive, reflective. If existence is struggle, might the acceptance of death be release ? Listen to Alexander Kipnis, powerful and tender in turn :
Then, the next big transition. In this final song, Brahms again chooses texts that refer to oppression and suffering, but now making the connection back to the fundamental values that give life meaning. Being able to sing like an angel means no more than being a klingende Schelle (hollow tinkling cymbal). Even "charity" and material good works mean nothing.
Then, Brahms takes a sudden leap into another plane. "Wir sehen jetzt durch einen Spiegel in einem dunkeln Worte.... This is the breakthrough, the flash of transcendent insight. All that really has ever mattered is love. The English translation, Faith, Hope and Charity is pretty feeble, for this "love" is infinitely more profound - respect for self, for others, goodwill and dignity - the opposite of oppression, the antidote to the ills of the world). Brahms turns a pious homily into something defiantly radical, universal. At last, Brahms exults!
Brahms has penetrated the meaning of life that vanquishes death. The most profound performances of the last part of this final song positively glow. Goerne in particular has made this cycle his trademark, for he has the flexibility to loosen the register and colour his singing with a sense of heightened, almost unworldly exaltation. Quite a feat for a bass baritone, so forgive Kipnis if he doesn't quite lift off in this song :
Hanno Muller-Brachmann's concert at the Wigmore Hall. I suspect it wasn't his day and he can do better :