Marie-Nicole Lemieux's 2004 Brahms recital presents the popular Serious Songs (4) and Op. 91 "viola" songs, and two groups that are less often heard in their entirety: Sechs Lieder, Op. 86, and Neun Gesänge, Op. 69. It is a richly interesting selection of songs, and an impressive effort from Lemieux, who emerged as an exciting new talent in the early 2000s.
Lemieux's chocolate-hued voice has robust middle and bottom registers, but also a gleaming and easy top that suits Brahms' warm, wide-ranging melodic style. Her sound itself is enough to grab attention, but Lemieux also applies an insightful imagination to these songs, lending Brahms' distinctively level-headed Romanticism with persuasive but unassuming soulfulness. Along with the very capable pianist Michael McMahon, who seems completely in tune with her, she finds exactly the right motion and temperament for each song. In "Des Liebsten schwur" (My Beloved's Oath), the contrast between a daughter's newfound joy and her father's constant ill temper takes on a humorous poignancy that says as much about the complexities of family life as it does the joy of falling in love. The two viola songs -- a gentle paean to the soothing power of death, and a Marian lullaby that exhorts the world to hush for her sleeping baby -- have an expansive, blissful confidence.
Brahms and the contralto voice have always had a natural affinity -- from the composer's own association with the great Ernestine Schumann-Heink to the still-haunting recordings of Marian Anderson. Marie-Nicole Lemieux, though still at the beginnings of her career, appears to be fully capable of taking up the mantle.