Romanticism is a disease. Thus spake Goethe, the sage of Weimar, after he had put behind him the romantic period of his life. The youthful Goethes Sorrows of Werther was the European epitome of a man torturing himself with unfulfilled longing. Brahms, with his unconsummated attachment to Clara Schumann knew this kind of pain all his life, and worked it out quite nakedly in his Lieder, particularly in the selections recorded here by Marie-Nicole Lemieux.
Sleep, dreams, death and the wish never to have been born are the consistent refuges of the love-sickened characters in these songs, particularly in the sets of six and nine songs that respectively make up Op. 69 and Op. 86. It is a wonder that a litany of complaint can be considered beautiful and can give pleasure to the listener. Such, however, is the power of language in the poems Brahms chose as settings for the deep, inner feelings that flowed from him as musical compositions. It is as if by being embraced and given expression by the poets, by Brahms, and subsequently by Ms. Lemieux, these records of lonely torment become beautiful and a source of pleasure.
The mellow, warm tones of Ms. Lemieuxs pure contralto flow without effort along the course of Brahms lines, nurturing and sustaining without judgment the full range of emotional outpouring. Her low and middle registers render the music in a way that satisfies completely. Occasionally, as in the song Drowned of Op. 86, one could wish for a bit less high register power and bit more reflection. Ms. Lemieux has the gift to render feelings that are close to tears, the sweet grief of the deserted lover, the unsettling nervous anxiety of regret, the sadness and sense of life-energy draining away into the softness of longed-for oblivion.
Her operatic training is evident in the Nine Songs, Op. 69, as she depicts in successive songs the near hysteria of an unwilling bride; the funky, lethal thirst of Salomé, and the conflicted love/hate mind of A Maidens Curse on the lover who left her: Pray to God in heaven/That he lies imprisoned/Imprisoned deep in a dungeon/Against my white breast. The addition of Nicolo Eugelmis violin to Michael Mcmahons stalwart piano in the Two Songs, Op. 91 supports the cello tones in Ms. Lemieuxs voice that take the listener to a place so close to the core of music itself that we escape for the duration of her song from the pain of romance. She achieves reflective, philosophical, and steadying effects in Four Serious Songs of Op.121. The first three songs are based on texts from Ecclesiastes, and therefore look at death as the common lot of all of us, not just the lovesick. This work was begun during the spring of 1896, when Brahms learned that a stroke had brought Clara to deaths threshold. She died a month later. The fourth song is a setting of Pauls First Epistle and is a hymn of hope, allowing the album to end on a positive note. Thus the disease of Romanticism is healed by the supreme power of music. Thus Marie-Nicole Lemieux completes her triumphant progress of musical characterizations along the avenue of Romance towards its resolution and rest in peaceful acceptance.
This album has been nominated for a Juno in the category Classical Album of the Year: Vocal or Choral Performance.