Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Songs Ring out to the Heavens – Brahms Choral Works
Four songs for Women’s Chorus, 2 Horns and Harp Op.171 (1860) [14:37]
Three Songs Op.42 (1860) [9:02]
Four Quartets Op.92 (1889) 2 [9:32]
Two Motets Op.29 (1860) [11:43]
Six Quartets Op.112 Nos.1 and 22 (1891) [4:48]
Five Songs Op.104 (1888) [12:01]
Neue Liebeslieder Walzer Op.65 No.152,3 (1875) [3:08]
Dave Everson and Steve Multer1 (Horns); Erik C. Nielsen1 (Harp); Cynthia Siebert2,3 (piano)
The Kansas City Chorale/Charles Bruffy (piano3)
rec. Blessed Sacrament Church, Kansas City, Kansas, USA, 12-14 June 1996
NIMBUS NI5524 [65:16]
 
One of the more foolish items in the British music press of the last year was a league table presuming to list in order of merit the world’s twenty finest choirs. Aside from any minor concerns about relevant criteria - only choirs whose performance material centred on what could be termed western ‘classical’ seem to have been judged - the utter impossibility of making absolute judgements about the merits of wildly diverse groups seems to have not concerned the compilers of such a list a jot. Good I guess for your group’s publicity machine if you made the list but wildly infuriating for the many who do not seem to have even been considered. More to do with weight of catalogue presence and therefore familiarity I wager than pure ability. Don’t get me wrong, the final twenty comprised superb choirs but the absence of any from Eastern Europe, or gospel groups or rock choirs or ensembles singing what might be collectively called folk or ethnic material fatally flawed the process. At the time the fact that no American choir either was featured caused as much of a stir as anything in the realm of classical music ever does. Listening to this superb disc from the ever-impressive Kansas City Chorale and you can understand why there was this annoyance. The Chorale under their long-serving music director Charles Bruffy recorded a series of discs for Nimbus back in the mid-nineties and it was through those that I first encountered them. Their Christmas recital Nativitas remains one of my all-time favourite discs for those seeking something away from the traditional Carols arr. Willcocks fare. The Chorale is a professional chamber choir with six voices allocated to each of the usual S.A.T.B. Their sound is characterised by a remarkably refined and balanced tone with the voices blending across all parts as well as I have ever heard. Attack and intonation are also exemplary and they have that superb ability of bending the sound they make to suit the style and period of the music they are singing. I like also the fact that their sound is not overly ‘young’. There seems to be such a predilection for choirs making an ever more pure or blanched sound that I find it something of a relief to here an out-and-out adult group. Not for a second does that imply anything matronly or lacking in focus; far from it. No surprise then that in this disc of warmly romantic music by Brahms they projected a rounded, warm and gorgeously mellifluous sound.
 
Before listening to this disc with the exception of the Liebeslieder I was rather ignorant of Brahms’ music for chamber choir - as these works might be termed. In his informative liner-note David Andrew Threasher valuably reminds us that Brahms took inspiration and influence from earlier Germanic composers such as Bach, Handel and Mozart. Certainly, one is aware throughout of a master-craftsman at work although apparently Brahms himself had doubts about their enduring worth asking his friend the violinist and composer Joseph Joachim; “apart from the ingenuity, is it good music?” The overall character of this CD is gently benevolent but within that Brahms experimented with various textural combinations of voices. There are straight 4-parts songs with piano accompaniment – Four Quartets Op.92 and Six Quartets Op.112; in the latter group only Nos.1 and 2 are recorded here. Superficially these were written for amateurs to sing at home gathered around a piano but the sophistication of writing would take it out of the range of such a group. Then there are five and six part works – the Five Songs Op.104 have setting for both groups while the Three Songs Op.42 are also for six whilst the Two Motets Op.29 are five part. This listing immediately tells you two things; that Brahms returned to this musical form throughout his life and that he wrestled with the tonal and textural implications of the form as well. Much as he – and other composers at the same time – found that adding an extra viola and cello to a string quartet allowed far greater richness in his String Sextets Opp.18 and 36 so here the line-up becomes SAATBB. Across the voices this adds greatly to the richness of the sound but it also allows, within the male/female split, that each group can cover the notes contained in the triads of basic chords. The Kansas singers are superb at achieving this blend – there is a quiet rapture to their performances of this music that I absolutely adore. In the earlier Op.29 motets only the bass line is split. This is logical since their model is Bachian and the second bass line is able to provide a musical foundation on which the other parts above build. As with the other Nimbus discs recorded in Kansas the production team have favoured a church location with the choir set slightly back into the acoustic. This gives a mellow warmth to the sound which I find ideal matching both the music itself and the performance style.
 
The highlight for me on this disc was the very opening sequence – Four songs for Women’s Chorus, 2 Horns and Harp Op.17. Even more than the famous excerpt from the Liebeslieder Waltzes that closes the disc this is the most truly Romantic (with a capital R) music on the disc. Opening with the quintessentially romantic instrument – the huntsman’s horn – this is simply glorious. I cannot think of any other examples in the repertoire for this unusual accompanying ensemble which no doubt accounts for its neglect either on disc or in the concert hall. One doesn’t associate Brahms with virtuoso harp writing but that is what we have here. Again the Nimbus engineers have placed the instrumentalists slightly back into the body of the church which allows them to play at a proper dynamic without swamping the often ethereal vocal writing. There is a rather serendipitous effect right at the start too –and one I was aware of only when I listened on headphones. The very opening song “Heart notes ring out, increasing love and longing..” is accompanied by bird-song sounding as if it comes from high in the roof of the church – given that the atmosphere of the whole set is powerfully nature-imbued this is disarmingly beautiful. Beauty is indeed the word I take from the entire disc. My only caveat is that the piano used to accompany the choir – although extremely well played by accompanist Cynthia Siebert – does not sound in the first flush of youth. The booklet as usual favours Nimbus’s preferred style of good-sized text printed in English only. Full texts in original languages (all German here) with English translation only are provided. Because this is not a mixed recital perhaps this disc does not show off the remarkable range of the wonderful Kansas City Chorale as impressively as some others I have heard. However, as a coherent well planned and superbly executed programme of rare Brahms this would be hard to beat even if there were multiple versions to choose; a quick scan of the catalogue would imply that there are not. A disc to savour for its serenely grave beauty and profound musicality.
 
Nick Barnard
 
A disc to savour for its serenely grave beauty and profound musicality.