The Carus label has issued a series of discs of Romantic Choral
music by German composers. Some have been devoted to music by
well-known composers such as Mendelssohn and Reger. Indeed, a
disc of Reger’s Christmas music came to me for review
followed by a second disc of his music for unaccompanied choir
In both cases I enjoyed the unfamiliar music and admired the performances
very much. Now along comes another instalment in the series and
this one is devoted to a much less familiar composer.
Since Albert Becker’s name and music may be as unfamiliar to other collectors as it was to me it may be useful to give just a little bit of background, some of which is drawn from the booklet notes. He was born in Saxony-Anhalt and studied in Berlin, where he then worked as a music teacher. He has a footnote in musical history as the man with whom Sibelius studied counterpoint (1889-1890). He began to compose and his output included three symphonies. Vocal music was a constant interest. While still a student he was a member of Berlin’s Sing-Akademie; he composed a good deal of choral music, including an oratorio; and in 1891 he was appointed director of the Berlin Cathedral Choir. In the following year he was offered the prestigious post of Kantor at the Thomaskirche, Leipzig but he declined the post after a personal intervention by Kaiser Wilhelm II and he remained in Berlin until his death.
Irritatingly, the Carus documentation gives no indication as to when the pieces in question were written and I’ve been unable to find much information from alternative sources. However, since his Reformationskantate
op. 28 apparently dates from 1883 and his oratorio Selig aus Gnade
Op. 61 from 1890 I think its reasonable to surmise that the first three pieces on the disc and the collection Liturgische Gesänge für das Kirchenjahr
date from the mid-1880s and the remainder of the programme is music from the 1890s, when Becker was in charge of the music at Berlin’s cathedral.
In appraising Becker’s choral music, annotator Michael Wersin indicates that he followed closely the traditions of German vocal music and, in particular, he states “[Becker] evidently felt no need in harmonic terms to go beyond the range of chords already used by Mendelssohn.” If that judgement leads you to conclude that Becker’s music is conservative, indeed anachronistic, in hue then, on the evidence of this disc, you’d be right.
To be truthful, I’m not convinced that the music is sufficiently strong to carry a whole CD. In particular I wonder if it was wise to devote just under half the programme to the Liturgische Gesänge für das Kirchenjahr
. These are ten short pieces for different occasions in the liturgical year. I presume this is the complete set – we’re not told. The pieces are well crafted and sincere and might make a good effect in isolation during a church service. Heard as a group, however, one quickly becomes aware of their limitations. In particular there’s very little evidence of musical fire in the belly. So, for example, the first in the set, Das Lamm, das erwürget ist
(‘The Lamb that was slain’) sets the same words that appear in the last chorus of Handel’s Messiah
but Becker’s prayerful setting, though attractive in its own right, seems a rather tame response to the majestic words. Then there’s the Advent text Machet die Tore weit
(‘Fling wide the gates’). There’s strength in the music – but only up to a point – and Becker seems all too ready to lapse into the comfort of archaic musical models.
Some of these pieces are better than others. Sehet, weich eine Liebe
(‘Behold, what manner of love), which is the third of the set, takes some lovely lines from St. John and clothes them in an appropriately warm, prayerful setting. Then Herr, nun lässert du deiner Diener
– the Nunc dimittis – proves to be just the sort of text that suits Becker and his setting is a very pleasing one. However, overall the impression that the music makes is not the strongest.
The best music on the disc is to be found later on. The second of the Opus 83 pieces, Gott, sei mir gnädig
, is a setting of Psalm 51 – the ‘Miserere’. It’s the most extensive piece in the programme – though it lasts for just under seven minutes – and though it breaks no new musical ground it’s a quietly impressive piece. Here Becker employs a few solo voices as a small consort and the resulting different textures offer a welcome contrast from the full choir. This is quite an impressive and dignified piece. Die Toren sprechen in ihrem Herzen
(‘The fool hath said in his heart’) takes words from Psalm 14. This piece, the fourth of the Op. 83 pieces, has a bit more energy and drama to it, as befits the text, but it’s the gentle, reflective sentiments of a text such as Ich hebe meine Augen auf
(‘I will lift up my eyes’) that seems to evoke the most natural response from Becker.
As I listened, however, I began to wonder if Becker’s music was best served by Consono. This is a chamber choir of thirty-eight singers (11 sopranos, 9 female altos, 10 tenors and 8 basses), founded by Harald Jers in 1995. They make a very beautiful sound – though I think the bass line is a bit lightweight at times – the voices blend beautifully and the tone is lovely. But is it all just a bit too cultured? As the programme unfolded I came increasingly, if reluctantly, to the conclusion that this music needs a stronger collective presence from the performers. The impression is given, rightly or wrongly, that Harald Jers is perhaps a little too concerned with beauty of sound and, as a result, the performances lack punch and passion – but perhaps I’m looking for something that isn’t there in the first place in Becker’s music. On balance I think it might have been preferable if Consono had presented a mixed programme in which a few pieces by Becker had been juxtaposed with suitable music either by contemporaries or by the earlier composers whose music influenced him.
The recorded sound is pleasing. The notes are a disappointment. There’s an acceptable short biography of Becker but discussion of the music is too limited when one considers that Becker and his music will be unfamiliar to most listeners.