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Deutsche Motette - German Romantic choral music from Schubert to Strauss
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Deutsche Motette, Op. 62 (1913)* [18:15]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Vier doppelchörige Gesänge, Op. 141 (1849) [15:19]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Gott ist mein Hirt, D706 (1820)** [5:32]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf, Op. 74, No. 2 (1879) [4:53]
Josef RHEINBERGER (1839-1901)
Abendlied Op. 69, No 3 (1873) [3:00]
Peter CORNELIUS (1824-1874) Liebe, Op. 18 (1872)* [14:27]
Helen Massey (soprano); Kate Symonds-Joy (contralto); William Kendall (tenor); Tim Mirfin (bass)/** David Ward (fortepiano)
Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge/Choir of King’s College, London/Geoffrey Webber/*David Trendell
rec. 4-6 July 2012, St. John’s Church, Upper Norwood, London. DDD
German texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34124 [61:30]

These two choirs have each made several recordings for Delphian and the label has brought them together once before to make a very fine recording of Rodion Shchedrin’s The Sealed Angel (review). Now, four years later, they have been reunited to bring us a very different programme, comprising High Romantic German music.
 
It’s in the nature of student choirs that there’s a constant membership churn as students leave on completing their studies to be replaced by new arrivals. I doubt that many if any singers from the Shchedrin recording remain but the excellence of the choral sound and musicianship of the combined choir is a constant, I think. What Delphian has dubbed its ‘superchoir’ - and why not? - comprised sixty-three singers (19/14/12/18) for this recording. That includes three low basses who are guest singers, presumably for the Strauss. The choir makes a splendid sound. There’s no hint of unwieldiness despite the size of the ensemble and the sound is fresh and clear yet, despite the age of the singers, it has plenty of body too. I enjoyed listening to the superchoir very much.
 
The freshness is perhaps most evident of all in the performance of Schubert’s Gott ist mein Hirt, a German version of Psalm 23. This is for women’s voices and the sound that the sopranos and altos make here is most appealing. The only thing that spoils the performance for me is the use of a fortepiano. No doubt this is authentic in the sense that this would have been the sort of instrument that would have been heard in Schubert’s time but these days we hear Schubert’s keyboard parts played so often on a modern grand piano and I wonder if achieving true authenticity should have meant using a smaller group of singers also. I’m afraid the tinkling sound of the instrument rather trivialises the accompaniment to my ears, though that’s very much a personal view and my comments in no way reflect adversely on the player, David Ward.
 
The rest of the programme is unaccompanied. The Brahms motet is right in the mainstream of the Lutheran lineage. It gets a robust performance, though that doesn’t preclude some pleasing shading in the fourth verse, and the concluding Amen is strongly projected. The set of four Schumann part songs also come off well. I particularly admired the lively rhythms and bright choral sound in the second song, ‘Ungewisses Licht’, while the concluding ‘Talismane’ benefits from the conviction and vitality that these young singers bring to the music.
 
The three songs by Cornelius were new to me and I found much to admire in them. They’re good examples of German Romantic choral music and they seem to be excellently written for choir. In the first and last songs the choir divides into eight parts. Though I was unfamiliar with the music these performances seem to be very fine and the music is presented with firm conviction. The Cornelius pieces are conducted by David Trendell, who also takes charge of the Strauss; the remainder of the programme is in the equally expert hands of Gonville & Caius College’s Geoffrey Webber.
 
So to David Trendell falls the task of directing the piece which I suspect was the raison d’être for combining the choirs in the first place. The eight-part textures of the Cornelius are as nothing compared with the luxuriance of Strauss’s writing in his Deutsche Motette. Here the choral writing splits into as many as sixteen separate parts plus a solo quartet - and there are small parts for a further three soloists at one juncture. Strauss sets Rückert’s lines to music of significant complexity that makes great demands on the singers. To be honest I wondered, before playing the disc, whether these young singers would have the vocal maturity and sheer heft necessary to deliver such music convincingly but within a couple of minutes it was evident that and such fears were groundless. The choir puts over Strauss’s rich, complex textures with great assurance and the requisite tonal strength and warmth. There’s some lovely, firm quiet singing and at the rapturous climaxes there’s no lack of full-throated tone. The solo quartet does well in their taxing music with Helen Massey’s soaring soprano a particular asset.
 
In recording the Deutsche Motette Paul Baxter has very sensibly opted to produce a sound that clarifies the often complex and eventful polyphony, thereby avoiding an aural mush. The singers appear to be fairly close to the microphones - the soloists in the foreground - but Baxter has skilfully managed to give us clarity without producing a clinical sound; he’s made good use of the natural resonance of the church where the recording was made and the results are excellent. The listener can hear a great deal of what’s going on and one can only admire the tireless efforts of these student singers. Even though I’m a great fan of Strauss I’m not wholly convinced by the piece, I have to admit. It does seem to me to be somewhat prolix at times and over-complicated. On the other hand one can simply surrender and sit back to enjoy the luxuriant choral textures. That’s what I did and I enjoyed this highly assured performance very much.
 
This is a highly desirable disc of interesting music in excellent and committed performances which have been expertly recorded. A well-produced booklet, including good notes by David Trendell completes the attractions of this release.
 
John Quinn