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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
A Cappella Choral Works

Chamber Choir of Europe/Nicol Matt
Amadeus-chor/Nicol Matt (CD number four only)
Recording 2003, Kloster Bronnbach, Wertheim; Schlosskirche Bad Dürkheim, Germany. DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92179 CD1 [50:36+41:35+ 57:11 + 66:28 + 58:18 + 57:47 + 61:07 + 52:34]


CD1
Liebeslieder:
Liebeslieder-Walzer op. 52
Neue Liebeslieder op. 65
CD2
Secular Choral Works:
Drei Quartette op. 31 (1864)
Drei Quartette op. 64 (1874)
Vier Quartette op. 92 (1889)
Zwei Quartette op. 112a (1891)
CD3
Secular Choral Works, Romanzen, Lieder and Gesange:
Three secular a cappella choral works op. 42
Sieben Lieder op. 62
Sechs Lieder und Romanzen op. 93a
Fünf Gesänge op. 104
CD4
Secular Choral Works:
Vierzehn Volkslieder/ 14 Folk Songs, WoO 34
Zwölf deutsche Volkslieder/ 12 German Folk Songs, WoO 35
CD5
Secular Choral Works, Zigeunerlieder:
Zigeunerlieder/Gypsy Songs op. 103
Zigeunerlieder/Gypsy Songs op. 112b (Nr. 3-6)
Sieben Volkslieder für Vorsänger, Chor und Klavier/Seven folk songs for soloists, choir & piano, WoO 33
Tafellied/Table song op. 93b
Kleine Hochzeitskantate/Little Wedding Cantata
Dem dunkeln Schoß der Erde

CD6
Sacred Works, Motets:
Zwei Motetten/Two Motets op. 29
Geistliches Lied op. 30
Zwei Motetten/Two Motets op. 74
Drei Motetten/Three Motets op. 110
Missa canonica WoO 18
CD7
Sacred Works:
Marienlieder op. 22
Fest-und Gedenksprüche op. 109
Fünf Lieder op. 41 für Männerchor
12 Lieder und Romanzen op. 44 für Frauenchor
Vier Lieder aus dem "Jungbrunnen" (7.-10.)
CD8
Female Choruses:
Ave Maria op. 12
Der 13. Psalm "Herr, wie lange" op. 27
Drei geistliche Chöre/3 sacred choruses, op. 37
Gesänge für Frauenchor/Four Songs for female chorus, for 2 horns and harp, op. 17
13 Kanons op. 113

 

The ever-enterprising Brilliant Classics label is to be heartily congratulated for releasing this wonderful eight CD collection of Brahms’ secular and sacred choral works. These are mainly for unaccompanied choir (a cappella) or with minimal instrumental accompaniment. At super-budget price the set represents particularly attractive value.

In the marketing narrative on their website, Brilliant Classics inform us of the importance of this eight CD set. Firstly it is true that Brahms’ choral music is little known and this situation is being remedied. Secondly this set contains the complete Brahms a cappella output, including some world premiere recordings. It is a real shame that we are not informed as to the identity of those world premieres. Thirdly this set is a major achievement for the Chamber Choir of Europe under the direction of Nicol Matt. This is true as they are a first-rate and progressive choir. However on the fourth CD it seems that the choir is not the Chamber Choir of Europe but the Amadeus-Chor about whom we are not provided with any information.

In a recent review I wrote that the greatest composers generally wrote the greatest music even if it is only rarely in the public domain. The greatness of the choral works of Johannes Brahms only serves to reinforce my viewpoint. Unaccompanied choral music, as illustrated by the small number of concert performances and the frequent 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 and for the most part unknown by the average listener leaving a considerable treasure trove of precious gems to be unearthed. However the tide seems to be turning and in addition to this Brilliant Classics release in the last couple of years or so there have been several welcome new cycles, in particular from the Chandos, Classico and Harmonia Mundi labels.

Throughout Brahms’s career choir works, both sacred and secular, were extremely popular in Europe. In fact, intimate, four-part choral works and romantic works scored for larger choirs were probably the leading musical genre rivalled in popularity only by the wide variety of chamber music played in a domestic setting . Rather than assemble an entire orchestra, it was far quicker and easier to gather together a group of singers, including amateurs, capable of mastering the parts without too much difficulty.

In 1859 Brahms co-formed and became music director and conductor of the Hamburger Frauenchor, a women’s choir numbering some forty voices, an association which was active until 1862. This experience undoubtedly stimulated Brahms to conduct and write prolifically for choral forces which he continued to do productively for the rest of his life. With the exception of the popular Liebeslieder-Walzer (CD1) Brahms’ large body of choral works to be performed a cappella or with minimal instrumental accompaniment seems largely forgotten and certainly neglected, a situation that this Brilliant Classic release is helping to redress.

From the large number of choral pieces on this release I have singled out the following works for particular attention:

Composed between 1868 to 1869 for vocal quartet and piano duet the eighteen Liebeslieder-Walzer op. 52 (CD1) were enormously successful. These Georg Friedrich Daumer settings are in the authentic Viennese waltz style and have been described as, "a refined apotheosis of domestic music-making". They were so immediately popular that Brahms orchestrated many of the waltzes. Following the popularity of the Liebeslieder-Walzer in 1874 Brahms, with the encouragement of his publishers who were never slow to miss a marketing opportunity, composed another set of waltzes entitled the Neue Liebeslieder op. 65 (CD1). This set of fifteen waltzes which feature a considerable number of individual soloists is more advanced in concept and richer in musical thought than the Liebeslieder-Walzer. The first fourteen Neue Liebeslieder are again settings of texts by Daumer with the final waltz featuring a Goethe text. The excellent Chamber Choir of Europe under Nicol Matt offer joyful and spontaneous lyricism, successfully maintaining the lighter-veined spirit of these two sets of waltz-songs.

I just love the Sieben Lieder op. 62 (CD3) which are part-songs for six-part chorus which Brahms composed in 1860-62. Brahms uses texts from ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’. the folk anthology that was to greatly inspire Mahler several years later. The singing of the Chamber Choir of Europe is cleanly focused, vital and direct.

Brahms in his Six Songs and Romances for unaccompanied mixed chorus, op. 93a (CD3) uses romantic texts in an economic and concentrated style. Nicol Matt and his choir perform the six part-songs wonderfully with great warmth and with a fine feeling for the ‘colour’ of the music.

The last of the Five Part-Songs for unaccompanied mixed chorus, op. 104 (CD3) from 1886-88 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 from the Chamber Choir of Europe is suitably evocative of melancholy with a palpable intensity of feeling.

Brahms’s Missa canonica WoO 18 (CD6) is a substantial work strongly related in technique to the 13 Kanons op. 113 for unaccompanied female voices. The Missa canonica is early, part composed in 1856, and has sections missing so the mass may not have been completed to Brahms’ satisfaction. Furthermore the Credo that caused Brahms much trouble and was not completed for many years is now lost. Although incomplete, the Missa canonica is well worth hearing and has many fine moments. These are strong and direct performances, pure-and bright toned and sung with appropriate reverence.

The Three Motets for four and eight-part unaccompanied chorus, op.110 (CD6) 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 is scored only for four-part chorus. The Chamber Choir of Europe give a fine and most fluid performance.

The first of the Two Motets for mixed chorus, op.74 (CD6) was composed in 1877 for double four-part chorus and the second motet for four-parts was composed some years earlier between 1863 and 1870. The Chamber Choir of Europe under Nicol Matt excel themselves in these two wonderful pieces. However the interpretations from the St. Brides Choir under Robert Jones on Naxos 8.553877 just gets my primary recommendation for their extra expression in a particularly moving performance.

Between 1859 and 1860 Brahms composed his Marienlieder for mixed unaccompanied voices, op.22 (CD7) originally written for the women’s voices of his Hamburger Frauenchor. The women’s choir found the contralto parts too low and were forced to introduce some tenors at the first performance; the work was subsequently published for mixed choir. The cycle of seven songs have a hymn-like quality, written in the manner of old German church chorales or German folk songs. In the Marienlieder the Chamber Choir of Europe effectively convey Brahms’ atmosphere of straightforward religious faith and sheer radiance of mood.

My favourite works included here are the exceptional Four Songs for female chorus, two horns and harp, op.17 (CD8) which were composed by Brahms in 1860 for his Hamburger Frauenchor. These entrancing and exquisite part-songs for chorus are highly Romantic in style yet, inexplicably, they are rarely performed and recorded. 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 of 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."

The Chamber Choir of Europe sing the op.17 choruses slowly and make these intrinsically joyous and lively works sound almost like dirges; especially in the opening chorus, Es tont ein voller Harfenklang. Wonderful playing however from our harpist Martina Schrott and the two horn players Sebastian Schindler and Sebastian Schorr. In this op.17 work nothing beats the breathtaking performance from the London Symphony Chorus, on a Dame Janet Baker selection, from Virgin Classics 561469 2.

I found the sound quality on this set to be clear and detailed yet over-bright in the Forte passages. Brilliant Classics usually have difficulties with their annotation but this release is a vast improvement. There are one or two grammatical and translation errors in the narrative but author Jorg Rothkamm has done a fine job. As usual the decisions about which titles to translate or not is annoyingly inconsistent. Texts have been included but unfortunately without English translations. The average timings of the discs are less than generous and the set could have been condensed in number. The compact box set is really attractively presented in nicely designed card slip-cases.

A most attractive release of Brahms's complete unaccompanied choral works. At super-budget price this release represents marvellous value. These works are a joy to hear and exploration will bring the listener many discoveries and hours of pleasure. Highly recommended.

Michael Cookson



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