Heinrich von HERZOGENBERG (1843 - 1900)
An Mutter Natur - Works for Mixed Choir a cappella
see end of review for track listing
Rheinische Kantorei/Hermann Max
rec. 30 November - 3 December 2010, Library of Knechtsteden Convent, Germany. DDD
CPO 777 728-2 [65:15]
When I am going to listen to a CD I usually start by reading the liner-notes, in particular if I am not that familiar with the repertoire. Knowing the background of the music and its composer can help to understand what you are going to hear. Sometimes it is probably better to start listening without reading the booklet. That is the case here.
The liner-notes by Eckhardt van den Hoogen are seven-and-a-half pages long. Poor translator! Sometimes less is more. I have read the original German text, and it is hard to find the relevant information. I wondered whether the author took his subject really seriously. He talks at length about the troublesome relationship between Heinrich von Herzogenberg and Johannes Brahms. Herzogenberg considered Brahms his friend, and he regularly sent him his latest compositions. Unfortunately Brahms didn't have that much to say about them, and if he said something it was mostly not very nice. By writing so extensively about Brahms' view on Herzogenberg as a composer one almost automatically starts to listen to his music with Brahms' verdicts in mind. That is not the best way to approach this repertoire. Van den Hoogen also pays much attention to Herzogenberg's character and even his appearance. It is hard not to get the impression that he was a kind of loser. But he wasn't. The rather negative verdict about the man's character probably tells more about our own times than about Herzogenberg.
He was of Austrian origin and born in Graz. After attending various gymnasiums he studied law at Vienna University and composition at the conservatory. He then settled in Graz as a freelance composer and moved to Leipzig in 1872. There he came into contact with Philipp Spitta, who wrote an influential biography of Johann Sebastian Bach. Together they founded the Bach-Verein, whose leader he became in 1875. In 1885 he was appointed professor of composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. His oeuvre comprises sacred and secular vocal works as well as orchestral and chamber music. In particular in the latter the influence of Brahms is evident.
The disc begins with six secular songs, partly arrangements of folksongs, like Entlaubet ist der Walde, partly on texts by famous poets: Goethe (Nachtgesang) and Mörike (Frühling: Er ist's). There is some naivety in them, but that can be quite charming, in particular if they are sung with the appropriate lightness as here by the Rheinische Kantorei. The six songs op. 57 are all on texts by some of the best German poets: Rückert, Goethe and Eichendorff. One is from the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The Weihnachtslied is by the 17th-century poet Ernst Christoph Homburg. The music is also a little more substantial than in the Op. 10.
The rest of the programme is devoted to sacred music. Psalm 116 is in three sections and written in a mixture of homophony and imitative polyphony. In the second section the last line - "O Lord, save my soul" - is mixed with the first: "Snares of death had closed in around me". This way the prayer is directly related to the situation described in the first line. The last section ends with "Halleluia!" which surprisingly ends piano.
The Liturgische Gesänge op. 99 are for harvest thanksgiving (Erntedank), and comprise seven songs. The first four are on texts from the Bible: Psalm 65, Revelation 4 (vs 11), James 1 (vs 17) and Psalm 34 (vs 9). Danket dem Herrn is a chorale arrangement: in the first section the chorale appears as cantus firmus in various voices, and the second section is a chorale setting. The collection closes with short compositions on a single word: Halleluja and Amen. The disc ends with four chorale motets. The melody of the original chorales is used in various ways. It is in pieces like these that Herzogenberg shows that he is justly rated among the conservative school of German composers.
In view of Herzogenberg's connection to the music of the past there is some logic in the fact that this repertoire is performed by the Rheinische Kantorei, a chamber choir which mostly sings music of the 17th and 18th centuries. Among the ideals of its conductor, Hermann Max, are transparency and good delivery. That pays off in these recordings. The lyrics are printed in the booklet, but if you understand German you don't really need them. One could probably say that the style of performance is too much 18th-century. Even so, this kind of interpretation is far better than traditional performances with a large choir and a heavy sound.
It would be an exaggeration to say that this music is unmissable. It is quite nice to listen to thanks to the fine performances of the Rheinische Kantorei. It sheds light on an interesting aspect of German music life in the 19th century: the writing of choral music which was often strongly influenced by some of the best German composers of the baroque era, Bach and Schütz.  

Johan van Veen

Nice music thanks to the performances of the Rheinische Kantorei. 

Track listing

Sechs Lieder op. 10
Frühling: Er ist's [1:17]
Entlaubet ist der Walde [1:33]
Hüt' Du Dich! [1:51]
Nachtgesang [1:49]
Der Kehraus [1:52]
Frühlingsglaube [1:37]

Sechs Gesänge op. 57
An Mutter Natur [5:21]
Die Bekehrte [2:04]
Ungeduld [1:10]
In der Nacht [2:26]
Brautlied [2:34]
Weihnachtslied [2:59]
Psalm 116, op. 34 [11:17]

Zum Erntedank - Liturgische Gesänge, Teil V, op. 99
Gott, man lobt Dich zu Zion [2:50]
Herr, du bist würdig zu nehmen Preis [1:37]
Alle gute und vollkommene Gabe [2:13]
Schmecket und sehet [1:49]
Danket dem Herren [1:46]
Halleluja [0:38]
Amen [0:25]

Vier Choralmotetten op. 102
Kommt her zu mir, spricht Gottes Sohn [2:47]
Soll ich denn auch des Todes Weg und finstre Straßen reisen [6:38]
O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid [1:36]
Mitten wir im Leben sind mit dem Tod umfangen [5:03]