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Brilliant Classics

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Choral Works

Four Songs for female chorus, two horns and harp, op.17 (1860)
Six Songs and Romances for unaccompanied mixed chorus, op. 93a (1883-84)
One of the Five Part-Songs for unaccompanied mixed chorus, op. 104 (1886-88)
Two of the Marienlieder for mixed unaccompanied voices, op.22 (1860)
One of the Three Motets for four and eight-part unaccompanied double chorus, op.110 (1889)
Two Motets for mixed chorus, op.74 (no.1 from 1877; no.2 from 1863-70)
Chamber Choir of Europe/Nicol Matt
Martina Schrott (harp); Sebastian Schindler (horn); Sebastian Schorr (horn)
Recording 2003, Kloster Bronnbach, Wertheim (Vier Gesänge), Schlosskirche Bad Durkheim DDD. SACD Original DSD Recording.

In a recent review I wrote that the greatest composers wrote the greatest music even if some of that music is only rarely heard in public. The greatness of the choral works of Johannes Brahms only serves to reinforce my viewpoint. Choral music, as illustrated by the small amount of concert performances and the frequent number of deletions in the CD catalogue remains unfashionable and has been so for several decades. This is a terrible shame as Brahms’s choral compositions are remarkable. For the most part it is unknown by the average listener leaving a considerable treasure trove to be unearthed. However the tide seems to be turning. In the last couple of years or so there have been several welcome new Brahms cycles released in particular from Chandos, ClassicO and Harmonia Mundi. The ever-enterprising Brilliant Classics is to be heartily congratulated for releasing this collection at super-budget price.

Throughout Brahms’s career choral works, both sacred and secular, were extremely popular throughout Europe. In 1859 he co-formed and became music director and conductor of the Hamburger Frauenchor, a women’s choir numbering some forty voices. This association remained active until 1862. This experience undoubtedly stimulated writing for choral forces which he continued to do productively for the rest of his life.

The Four Songs for female chorus, two horns and harp, op.17 were composed in 1860, quite naturally for his Hamburger Frauenchor. These entrancing and delightful part-songs are highly Romantic in style yet rarely performed. It has been said that Brahms chose the accompaniment of the two horns for their association with ‘forest mystery’ and the harp for its evocation to ‘water and wind’. Brahms’ biographer, Malcolm MacDonald wrote: "had Brahms written nothing but these four choruses he would deserve to be remembered as one of the lyric masters of the Romantic period."

Unfortunately the Chamber Choir of Europe sing the choruses quite slowly making these intrinsically joyous and lively works sound like dirges. This is especially the case in the opening chorus, Es tont ein voller Harfenklang. There is wonderful playing however from harpist Martina Schrott and the two horns players Sebastian Schindler and Sebastian Schorr. In this op. 17 work nothing beats the performance of the London Symphony Chorus on a Dame Janet Baker selection from Virgin Classics 561469 2.

Brahms in his Six Songs and Romances for unaccompanied mixed chorus, op. 93a uses Romantic texts which are economic and concentrated in style. Nicol Matt and his choir perform the six part-songs wonderfully with a feeling of great warmth and regard for colour.

The last of the Five Part-Songs for unaccompanied mixed chorus, op. 104 heralds a change of mood. The song Im Herbst on a text from Klaus Groth is one of Brahms’s most exquisitely despondent works. The performance is suitably evocative of melancholy with a palpable intensity of feeling.

Brahms originally composed his Marienlieder for mixed unaccompanied voices, op.22 for the women’s voices of his Hamburger Frauenchor. The cycle has a hymn-like quality, written in the manner of old German church chorales or German folk songs. On this release we are offered only the first and fifth of the Marienlieder, nevertheless the Choir effectively convey Brahms’s atmosphere of straightforward religious faith and sheer radiance of mood.

The Three Motets for four and eight-part unaccompanied chorus, op.110 were composed by Brahms in 1889 and were probably the last choral works that he wrote. The first and third Motets are written for eight-part double chorus whilst the second Motet, which is the only one of the three here, is for four-part chorus and uses an anonymous text. The choir give a fine and most fluid performance.

The first of the Two Motets for mixed chorus, op.74 was composed in 1877 for double four-part chorus and the second motet for four-part chorus was composed some years earlier between 1863 and 1870. The choir excel themselves in these two wonderful works. I would however recommend the interpretations from the St. Brides Choir, Fleet Street under Robert Jones on Naxos 8.553877 for their extra expression in what are particularly moving performances.

The sound from this SACD recording is clear and detailed yet for me over-bright in the top registers. Brilliant Classics usually have difficulties with their annotation and this release is no exception. To provide a new release of choral works without any texts whatsoever is frankly regrettable and poor marketing. All the works on this release are taken from the recent Brilliant Classics eight CD set of the Brahms Complete A Cappella Choral Works on catalogue number 92179.

An attractive selection from Brilliant Classics of Brahms choral works. At super-budget price this release is well worth hearing.

Michael Cookson

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