Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sechs Lieder und Romanzen [12.34]
Drei Quartette [14.03]
Funf Gesang [14.55]
Zigeunerlieder [20.58]
Dem Dunkeln Schoss der Heil’gen Erde [3.55]
Consortium/Andrew-John Smith; Christopher Glynn (piano)
rec. St-Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, 23-25 October 2007. DDD
HYPERION CDA 67775 [66.33]

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 It is one of those works that was unpublished during Brahms’s life.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.
Em Marshall-Luck 

Certainly a disc that I will be returning to again.