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Brahms: Ein kleiner, hübscher Vogel

Since my upcoming Wolf Trap concert features four singers and two pianists, it seemed crazy not to open the program with the cornerstone work for those forces: Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes. Normally I shun the obvious, so I briefly considered delving into the four-part writing of Szymanowski or Schoeck or Schreker. After about 40 seconds I came to my senses. Some pieces are evergreen, and the Liebeslieder are at the top of that last.

When Joseph Li and I worked on them last weekend, evergreen seemed too weak a description. “Good Humor truck” is more like it, a freezer-full of irresistible treats whose appeal is practically addictive. Each waltz is different in character, ranging from slow dances to dapper quick-steps to aggressive ones that have the razor-sharp drive of a mazurka. I knew they would be a good way for the Wolf Trap cast to bond with each other, and with Joe and me. Playing and singing this Brahms work is like having a sweet love affair. As you rehearse the Liebeslieder,  you begin to feel that you are in a room with the people who matter the most to you, a beautiful musical intimacy.

Here’s my (current) favorite, “Ein kleiner, hübscher Vogel,” sung and played here by a sterling roster of musicians: Edith Mathis, Brigitte Fassbänder, Peter Schreier, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with Karl Engel and Wolfgang Sawallisch at the piano. Deutsche Grammophon clearly spent some money on this project. They’re great…but I bet we can get this piece to sound even sweeter and more charming!

Brahms Lieder (Christa Ludwig/Leonard Bernstein)

I once was criticised as having “played like a conductor”. Or so I thought. The critic said later “Oh no, I thought it was wonderful. Colorful, orchestral sounds, structurally solid, and not careful the way some accompanists are.” Wow, I thought. That  really was a compliment. The best conductors, when they take time to practice, really can be marvelous music partners. Here’s an extraordinary Brahms recital by Christa Ludwig with Leonard Bernstein at the piano. He doesn’t hold back, but notice how he moves under the voice, taking advantage of Ludwig’s fabulous breath, but also getting her through those loooong phrases with ease. I am especially fond of “Ruhe Sussliebe” at 7:21. It must have been recorded after the recital. Christa turns to Bernstein and sings the entire thing to him, just like the best kind of rehearsal. This is what we pianists hope for. Our singers singing to us, for us, with full trust and gratitude. This is such beautiful music making. Enjoy!


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