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Georg SCHUMANN (1866–1952)
Three Choral Motets for mixed choir, Op. 75 (1934) [25.10]
Five Choral Motets for mixed choir, Op. 71 (1921/22) [42.15]
Geraldine McGreevy (soprano)
Mary Nelson (soprano)
The Purcell Singers/Mark Ford
rec. St. Alban’s Church, London, 5, 12 November 2006. DDD
GUILD GMCD 7311 [67.35]



Georg Schumann came from a family of musicians: his father was the town music director in Königstein, his grandfather was a Kantor and his brother Camillo was also a composer. Georg studied music with his father and grandfather before continuing at Dresden and at the Leipzig Conservatoire. A talented conductor and choir trainer, he settled in Berlin in 1900 where he became director of the Sing-Akademie. He found the choir extraordinarily musical and it learned music quickly. This gave an impetus to his composing and he wrote his first piece for them, Drei geistliche Lieder in 1902.

In 1916 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Friedrich Wilhelm University. War and post-war chaos prevented him from writing a piece in response to the honour. Finally in 1921 he wrote the Five Chorale Motets, Op. 71, which were first performed by the Berliner Sing-Akademie in 1922.

The motets are well wrought pieces, firmly in the tradition of Bach, Mendelssohn and Brahms. But they are also rooted in the 20th century, though the tradition to which Schumann belonged is the conservative one. Schumann’s music is closer to Reger and Pfitzner than it is to Strauss, Berg or Schoenberg.

Schumann’s chorale-based motets are not slavish followers of the past. His harmonisations of the chorale melody are often quite idiomatic. After a statement of the chorale he transforms the theme almost beyond recognition, firmly placing motifs in modern harmonic relationships. He was equally free with the words, adjusting texts to suit his own purposes.

The first motet in the set is based on a chorale by Nicolai. Schumann alternates the high and low voices to magical effect at the opening of the piece. By the middle of the piece, Schumann is getting quite harmonically adventurous and the chorale almost disappears. The following two motets are very similar in construction and sound-world. Only in the fourth motet, “Wachet auf”, does he vary the structure, by introducing first organ accompaniment in the second verse and brass accompaniment in the third. The result is very stirring and would certainly bear reviving.

For the final motet of the group, Schumann reverts to an unaccompanied choir, but here they accompany two soprano soloists. The opening, with its soprano solo and high-voiced choir, as if coming from celestial heights, is quite magical.

Schumann’s next group of choral pieces were written in 1932 and first performed in 1934 again by the Sing-Akademie. The Three Chorale Motets, Op. 75 are again structured along the lines of the earlier pieces. Despite their late date, they remain firmly in the world of Wagner and Liszt. Like the earlier motets, one is rather more festal and uses an accompaniment of horns, trombones, tuba and timpani.

These are well-wrought, symphonic-scale pieces. The longest motets last over eleven minutes and the shortest is nearly six minutes long. They would make strong items in a mixed choral programme and sound as if they are rewarding to sing. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that they are probably as much fun to sing as to listen to … possibly more so.

The Purcell Singers under their conductor Mark Ford have already recorded a disc of Schumann’s earlier motets for ASV. This disc of the later pieces complements that neatly. In his Gramophone review of the ASV disc, Malcolm Riley described the disc as ‘revelatory’.

The choir make a warm, well-blended sound and respond well to Schumann’s luxuriant textures. As recorded here, they use a big, vibrato-laden sound which does not always work well with Schumann’s chromaticism. When Schumann’s textures get complex I would sometimes have liked a greater sense of line and clarity of texture rather than the suave and resolved choral sound produced here. There are odd moments of raw tone in the tenors and sopranos, but not enough to disturb.

These are fine performances of well-crafted music. Anyone interested in the byways of German neo-Romantic composers in the 20th century would be well advised to try this disc. 

Robert Hugill 




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