Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Motets Op.74 and Op.29
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Three Motets Op.110
Tapiola Chamber Choir
Juha Kuivanen, conductor
Recorded at Olari Church, Finland in November 1996 and May 1997
TELDEC APEX 0927 40605 2 [69.05]

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The retrospective interest in the period of Bach which took place in Germany during the 19th century is well documented and much focused on Mendelssohn’s performance of the St Matthew Passion. The next generation continued the research and rediscovering processes, in which Brahms and Reger both played major roles, but so too did the composer Max Bruch and the academic musicologists Philipp Spitta and Gustav Nottebohm, these last two being both important figures behind the scenes. Having said that it must also be remembered that the Motet as a musical form was not born with Bach (who tended to use it for funeral or memorial services). It had a history stretching back a further five hundred years or more. As far as Brahms was concerned the spread of years in which he composed his thirteen motets covers most of his life, and the two pairs on this disc come from his early and middle periods. Spitta was a personal friend and the author of an important biography of Bach, Nottebohm was the editor of the complete Bach edition being produced at the time by the German music publishers Breitkopf and Härtel. When Nottebohm died in 1882 Brahms refused the offer of his post, having turned down Bach’s former Cantor post in Leipzig four years earlier. The two Motets Op.29 are the earliest he wrote, dating from 1857-1860, the first, ‘Es ist das Heil uns kommen her’ (‘There is a salvation come to us’) was first performed in Vienna on 17 April 1864 by the Singakademie, of which Brahms was the rather self-effacing and reluctant conductor. The choir had specifically requested a programme consisting entirely of Brahms’ own compositions. The motet, in five parts with two bass parts, uses a tune and words by Paul Speratus dating from the earliest period of German Protestant congregational singing, the 16th century. It starts with the familiar, but inventively harmonised, chorale, and is followed by an extended fugal setting based on the main chorale melody. The second, ‘Schaffe in mir, Gott’ (‘Create in me a clean heart, O God’), which also has divided basses, is an exercise in the canonic principal, for example opening with a canon in augmentation, in which the sopranos sing the melody twice through above the basses singing at half speed. It then ends with a freely developed fugue. The musical material for the pair of motets Op.74 was conceived between about 1856 and 1878, published in 1879, and dedicated to Spitta. They use as many contrapuntal devices as their predecessors, though this time the writing is in four parts.

Max Reger’s interest in Bach took hold during his teaching years at Munich’s Academy of Music between 1901 and 1905, and again at the end of his life when he was involved in editing the master’s keyboard music. Significantly he described Bach as ‘the beginning and end of all music’. The three Motets Op.110 date from 1909 to 1912 (when Reger was in Leipzig) and are each independent works collected together, written in five parts and following much the same scheme. Reger’s music is highly chromatic and extremely complex in its contrapuntal structure, no doubt the result of his brilliant organ playing (‘Ach Herr, strafe mich nicht’), yet there are moments of stark simplicity when all the strands resolve themselves into a unified chorale (such as at the conclusion of ‘Mein Odem ist schwach’). The last Motet (‘O Tod, wie bitter bist du’) is in memory of Lili Wach, Mendelssohn’s youngest daughter, and is a work of contrasts reflecting the text’s dual message, the pain and joy of death.

Competition is tough when it comes to recordings of Brahms’ Motets. Matthew Best’s Corydon Singers on Hyperion (CDA66389) and especially Marcus Creed’s RIAS Chamber Choir 3CD set of all the composer’s chamber choral music on Harmonia Mundi (HMX 2901590.93) which are both excellent performances. Nonetheless the Finnish Tapiola Chamber Choir under Juha Kuivanen hold their own, producing a lovely blend of sound, secure intonation on the whole (the Reger works put them under some strain when coping with the fiendishly hard chromatic progressions), and sensitive, contrasting reflection of the text throughout the disc. The recording venue has a natural warmth and resonance, producing an even spread of internal balance within the choir.

Christopher Fifield

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