A lovely disc of Brahms choral songs this features two sets
of vocal quartets and three a cappella works. The vocal
quartets are the Drei Quartette (published in 1874),
and Zigeunerlieder of 1887 - a set of eleven “gypsy
songs”, with texts taken from a collection of Hungarian
folksongs. Both of these were composed for four individual voices,
plus piano accompaniment, here played by Christopher Glynn.
Despite having been conceived for solo voices, Brahms noted
in a letter to his publisher that they “might on occasion
be sung by small choir”. I am not entirely convinced,
however, by this version. With its three or four singers to
a part, the texture is denser and heavier than Brahms would
have originally intended. This also leads to problems in balance
with the piano. Said piano - despite being a Bösendorfer
of 1872 - occasionally comes across rather like an upright in
a school hall - particularly in Kommt dir manchmal, where
it is very plinky-plonky - technical term!
The a cappella works are the opening Sechs Lieder
und Romanzen of 1883-4 - three of the six settings being
of folk poems, whilst the other three are to words by important
romantic writers including Ruckert and Goethe. The dark and
cheerless Funf gesang, and Dem Dunkeln Schoss der
Heil’gen Erde - the latter a part-song for mixed voices
- concludes the disc. It is one of those works that was unpublished
during Brahms’s life. Probably composed in the 1860s or
1870s, its lugubrious music sets funereal words in a slightly
Schutz-ian - in its compositional concerns and processes - piece.
These work much better, to my ear, than the quartets.
I feel that on occasion the sound produced by Consortium is
slightly too “ecclesiastical” for this repertoire.
Their limpid purity is somewhat incongruous, particularly with
the jollier songs. I found this particularly noticeable in Roslein
dreie in der Reihe, where the limp, breathy, very “English”
sound in a piano dynamic gives the song an almost Gilbert
and Sullivan-esque air. Likewise, some of the tempo changes
in Zigeunerlieder feel a little mannered.
Although I have devoted some space to these issues they are,
in the general scheme of things, only minor quibbles. These
aside, this is an excellent disc and very well-performed. Although
the sopranos dominate when in their higher register - this may
be the acoustic - the sound is otherwise good. The intonation,
diction and ensemble cannot be faulted whatsoever - wonderfully
secure throughout. The slightly “ecclesiastical”
sound that I have mentioned is purely a matter of style; some
listeners may prefer their Brahms sung thus. As one would expect
from Hyperion, the whole disc is well-presented, with good programme
notes and the inclusion of photographs and song texts. This
is certainly a disc that I will be returning to again.