Sunday, February 3, 2019

“Viola Songs” by Brahms, Bridge, and Loeffler

Left: Katarzyna Sadej; above right: Basia Bochenek; below: Alma Lisa Fernandez.


First Fridays at First!—fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Who knew? Not me, for sure, despite the description, in the February “First Fridays at First!—fff” leaflet, of Brahms’ Zwei Gesange für eine Altstimme mit Bratsche und Pianoforte Op. 91 as “much-loved.” I was thus a bit abashed to realize that I had never previously encountered these two “Viola Songs”, which formed the first item in a cleverly-planned recital by the Polish-born mezzo-soprano Katarzyna Sadej and her recital partner, pianist Basia Bochenek (aka the Kasia & Basia Duo), together with the violist Alma Lisa Fernandez.

Joseph Joachim and his wife
Amalie, dedicatees of
Brahms’ “Viola Songs.”
Despite their high opus number and publication date (after most of Brahms’ chamber music and all of his orchestral works apart from the Fourth Symphony and Double Concerto), these two spacious settings—more on the scale of operatic scenas or even sonata slow movements than songs per se—do not occupy a comparable position in his output to, say, that of the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss.

Though they share much of the valedictory mood of that masterpiece, in 1884 Brahms still had more than a decade of composition left to him. Indeed the second of the “Viola Songs”, Geistliches Wiegenlied (“Sacred Lullaby”), had been written back in 1864, to celebrate the birth of their first child of his friends, the violinist Joseph Joachim and his wife Amalie.

Now, 20 years later, the relationships had soured, with Joachim suing his wife for divorce and Brahms taking her side in the dispute. He wrote Gestillte Sehnsucht (“Assuaged Longing”) to precede the Lullaby, and issued the pair of songs as an (only partially successful) peace-offering to the estranged couple: the friendship between Brahms and Joachim was eventually re-established, but the marriage was over.

This heartfelt performance made me sorry not to have heard them before. Ms. Fernandez’s viola was eloquent in the long, somber introduction to Gestillte Sehnsucht, though in this work I did feel that the vocal line lay a little low for Ms. Sadej’s mezzo range, with a quite heavy beat in her voice tending somewhat to blur Brahms’ closely-packed harmonies. The brighter, less dour mood of the “Sacred Lullaby”, its lulling berceuse quality so perfectly complementary to its more intense companion, sounded more comfortable for her voice.

Frank Bridge, photographed by
Herbert Lambert, c.1922.
As a considerable fan of the orchestral and chamber music of English composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941), I felt equally chastened not to have before come across his Three songs for medium voice and piano, with viola obbligato H.76, composed in 1906-07. Eloquent and dark-hued—this accentuated by the husky musings of the viola—they nonetheless share the concision and pointfulness of all of Bridge’s music, whether it be his considerable output of mainly romantically inclined music composed up to the outbreak of World War 1, or the smaller quantity of more ambitious, modernistic and harmonically astringent works that he produced in the decades following the war. 

Far, far from each other, to words by Matthew Arnold, carried a certain sea-swell in Ms. Bochenek’s strongly accented accompaniment, while Where is it that our soul doth go? (Heine) rose to considerable declamatory power in Ms. Sadej’s interpretation after the darkly chromatic piano introduction, the vocal line alternating with broad, downward-sweeping viola phrases. The Shelley setting Music when soft voices die maintained the sable eloquence of its predecessors, with Ms. Fernandez relishing this song’s even more ardently romantic viola introduction to Ms. Sadej’s rich tones.

Charles Martin Loeffler,
by John Singer Sargent, 1903.
Following this immensely appealing Bridge trilogy (note to self: listen to more of his songs), time constraints meant that there was only time for No. 4 Sérénade, and No. 2 Dansons la gigue! from the Quatre poèmes pour voix, alto et piano Op. 5, written in 1904 by the German-born, naturalized American Charles Martin Loeffler (1861-1935).

One of the very few discs on ArkivMusic devoted to Loeffler's music is entitled “Forgotten Songs”, and that says it all, really; the only other one that I know of is a terrific recording on the British Dutton label devoted to some of his orchestral works. Thanks, however, to the inspired programming by this splendid trio of performers, these two songs from the set demonstrated Loeffler's vocal works to be well worth exploring as well.

Sérénade in particular, as well as being grateful for Ms. Sadej's voice, showed off Ms. Fernandez’s instrumental chops with some deft pizzicato to-and-fro-ing with the piano as introduction, and later some delightfully eerie sul ponticello effects to accompany the singer’s sepulchral “comme la voix d’un mort qui chanterait du fond de sa fosse.”

In complete contrast, Loeffler has his viola player make a fair impression of an Irish fiddler in the brief Dansons la gigue!, alternating with more soulful reflections by the singer. Maybe this trio will give us the complete Quatre poèmes Op. 5, including the much longer first and third songs, at a future recital. Meanwhile, however, on this occasion they had a very unexpected and wholly delightful encore to deliver. 

Lutosławski in the 1950s.
By coincidence, I’ve been enjoying recently music by the great 20th century Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, and reading around my listening had found references to “pop songs” he was said to have written under a pseudonym in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Here, lo-and-behold, was one of them!

This song, Z lat dziecinnych (“From childhood”), proved to have much more in common with the bitter-sweet cabaret style of Weill, underpinned by gentle piano syncopations, rather than aping the guitar-and-drums line-up the “pop song” label might have led you to expect. Again, more please!


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, February 1, 2019.
Images: The performers: Courtesy Classical Crossroads Inc; The Joachims: Wikimedia Commons; Frank Bridge: National Portrait Gallery, London; Loeffler: Wikimedia CommonsLutosławski: Courtesy Wikiwand.

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