One of the most grown-up review sites around

54,416 reviews
and more.. and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here



International mailing

Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             


Buy through MusicWeb for £13.99 postage paid World-wide. Immediate delivery
You may prefer to pay by Sterling cheque to avoid PayPal. Contactfor details

Purchase button

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Missa Canonica for four/five part choir and organ, Op. Posth. (1856–57) [12:20]
Es ist das Heil uns kommen her Motet for unaccompanied five part choir,
Op. 29 No 1 (1860) [4:27]
Schaffe in mir, Gott Motet for unaccompanied five part choir, Op. 29 No 2 (1856) [6:31]
Geistliches Lied Sacred Song for four part choir and organ, Op. 30 (1856) [5:02]
Ave Maria for four part upper voices and organ, Op. 12 (1858) [3:56]
O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf Motet for unaccompanied four part choir,
Op. 74 No 2 [4:53]
Warum ist das Licht gegeben? Motet for unaccompanied five part choir,
Op. 74 No 1 (1877) [9:30]
Joseph Gabriel RHEINBERGER (1839-1901)

Mass in E flat major for unaccompanied double choir, Op. 109 Cantus Missae (1878) [22:03]
The Choir of Westminster Cathedral/Martin Baker
Matthew Martin (organ)
rec. 11-14 July 2005, Westminster Cathedral, London, England. DDD
HYPERION CDA67559 [69:31]

Choral music, as illustrated by the paltry number of concert performances and the frequent CD deletions remains unfashionable and has been so for several decades. This is a terrible shame as the choral compositions of Brahms and also Rheinberger contain remarkable music which is for the most part unknown to the average listener. A considerable treasure trove of precious gems remain to be unearthed from these sources. Thankfully, the tide now seems to be turning and in the last three or so years there have been several welcome new Brahms cycles released by Chandos, ClassicO, Brilliant Classics, Harmonia Mundi and Hyperion.

Throughout the careers of Brahms and Rheinberger, choral works, both sacred and secular, were extremely popular throughout most of Europe. This trend continued to an unprecedented degree that has not been seen since right up to the outbreak of the Great War. In 1859 Brahms co-formed and became director of the Hamburger Frauenchor, a woman’s choir numbering some forty voices, an association which was active until 1862. This experience undoubtedly inspired Brahms to write for choral forces which he continued to do productively for the rest of his life. Rheinberger, the largely ignored composer of twelve Masses, a Stabat Mater, a Requiem and many other sacred music scores, followed an association with choral music similar to that of Brahms. He was engaged as accompanist to the Munich Choral Society in 1854, progressing to director ten years later. He resigned in 1877 when he became director of the Königliche Hofkapellmeister.

Brahms’s early Missa Canonica for four/five part choir and organ is something of a rarity. Composed around 1856, it lay unperformed until its publication in 1983 despite being regarded highly enough by its composer for him to have re-used some of its material in the popular Motet, Warum ist das Licht gegeben? The absence of both the Gloria and Credo settings - these texts being too long to be easily suited to the form of a Canon - probably explains the neglect of the score. Yet the four movements of this youthful work show all the hallmarks of Brahms’s compositional mastery and a deft handling of choral effect; qualities well known from his many Motets. The Motets represented here are: Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, Op. 29/1; Schaffe in mir, Gott, Op. 29/2; O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf, Op. 74/2 and Warum ist das Licht gegeben?, Op. 74/1. The sublime Sacred Song, Geistliches Lied, Op. 30 is also recorded here as is the popular setting of the Mendelssohn-influenced, Ave Maria, Op. 12.

Although I was hearing the score for the first time Joseph Rheinberger’s extraordinary Mass in E flat major for unaccompanied double choir, Op. 109 from 1878, is undoubtedly the star work and concludes this Hyperion release. The marketing information to the release explains, "This is music born of the polychoral Venetian tradition of Gabrieli and Monteverdi, nurtured on the harmonic milk of Bach and Mendelssohn, and finally offered up to the world as a miniature choral symphony that is uniquely Rheinberger’s." Dedicated to Pope Leo XIII, Rheinberger’s Mass for double choir was written in the months immediately following his rejection of the ideals of the Cecilian movement. The organisation attempted to place church music firmly within the liturgy by deliberately suppressing musical individuality in favour of clear declamation of the text. The Cecilians aimed to restore a Palestrina-like ‘purity’ to liturgical music.

Rheinberger’s Mass for double choir, although undeniably dependent on earlier models, exhibits the composer’s new-found freedom and flexibility when writing sacred music. Right from the opening bars, the antiphonal writing harks back to the late-Renaissance splendour of Venice’s cori spezzati (spaced choirs) tradition, and the spectres of Bach and Mendelssohn are never far away. However, this music belongs to Rheinberger and shows to great effect his gloriously unpredictable powers of invention and strong gift for liturgical communication.

It is hard to imagine finer singing of these sacred scores from Brahms and Rheinberger than that from the Westminster Cathedral Choir. The Cathedral choristers display a remarkable technical prowess and refinement. From the riveting Kyrie of the Missa Canonica to the symphonic conclusion of the Agnus Dei of the Mass for double choir, Martin Baker directs winning performances, that are marvellously fresh and well-paced. In the exceptional ecclesiastical acoustic of Westminster Cathedral the male choir’s timbre is rich and immediate, with a robust edge that seems ideal for these compelling scores. The highlight for me is the direct and vital quality to the Westminster choir’s singing in Rheinberger’s magnificent Mass. The contribution from organist Matthew Martin is first rate, providing immediacy, without ever being obtrusive.

These are superbly performed and recorded sacred works that lovers of choral music will surely relish.

Michael Cookson


Return to Index

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.