In “Crazy Hearts: Nashville,” a reality TV show about country music performers, a cast member consoles her recently dumped friend with “Your first big hit could be a heartbreak away.” Devotees of Lieder (German art song) gathered at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Jan. 21 to hear Johannes Brahms’ songs inspired by love, as part of the Ax Brahms Project featuring Swedish soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Emanuel Ax.
If heartbreak is indeed a source of inspiration for great music, then it’s not surprising that Brahms has had so many hits that remain popular to this day. Brahms developed strong feelings for several women in his life, but never married. Brahms biographer Jan Swafford suggests the trauma of playing piano at a prostitute bar as a teenager as a reason why Brahms felt threatened by “intimacy and female sexuality”: “Always he fled the beating of his heart.”
Ax and Otter chose songs from Brahms’ various sets in a way that provided the audience with an emotional narrative, with the first three songs in the program serving as motifs of lust, love and loneliness for the entire evening.
Otter’s lush voice was the perfect spirit to mend aching hearts. In “Da unten im Tale” where lovers break up, she sang with such affection as to make it bittersweet. Otter was adept at exploiting her operatic background and wide vocal range to give the characters in each of the songs a sense of drama, and to add color to the scenery. In “Auf dem Kirchhofe,” a song about how only death can heal heartache, Otter’s voice took on a dark hue as she sang with the lower reaches of her voice, “on every grave melted quietly the words: ‘we were healed.’” In the charming “Juchhe,” she articulated her body like a bird as she sang, “How beautiful the earth is? The little birds know that.” Otter proved to be a great storyteller.
However, between the euphoric joys and deepest sorrows are shades of loneliness that hide in Brahms’ music. In a letter to Clara Schumann about his B minor Intermezzo for piano, Brahms wrote: “One wished to draw the melancholy out of each one of them and voluptuous joy and comfort out of the discords.” Brahms then compresses these conflicted feelings in a way that might escape the notice of the performer. Clara said of Brahms’ music, “It is wonderful how he combines passion and tenderness in the smallest of spaces.”
Otter’s interpretation at times seemed too literal, with little room for ambiguity. Perhaps, if she allowed for more vulnerability, we could hear the different shades of loneliness in her otherwise radiant voice.
Similarly, while Ax was enchanting throughout the evening, the hurried tempo in the Intermezzi and Romanze kept the sense of longing and loneliness hidden behind the passionate passages.
The program also featured works by a Swedish contemporary of Brahms, Tor Aulin, and two contemporary American composers, Missy Mazzoli and Nico Muhly. The cool Scandinavian sonic landscape of Aulin’s “Til en ros” might at first seem at odds with the passionate Brahms, but the lushness and melancholy in both composers’ music provided a sense of continuity.
Muhly’s “So Many Things,” a song set to Joyce Carol Oates’ poem “I Saw a Woman Walking Into a Plate Glass Window,” is at once lyrical and yet cerebral in its sense of tragedy and loneliness.
Otter and Ax ended the evening with a heartfelt performance of the Brahms’ Lullaby, as an encore dedicated in memory of the recently deceased conductor Claudio Abbado.
Followers of the Lieder art form are small. But they tend to be fiercely loyal. After all, Lieder lovers do find it difficult to unwind the spell cast by the poetic powers with which the best Lieder composers convey their deepest and personal thoughts on love.
—Samuel Jang, Culture Spot LA
For information about upcoming concerts in Emanuel Ax’s Brahms Project, visit http://www.laphil.com/Ax.