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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Complete Choral Works

Full track-listing at foot of this review

DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 4220 [7 CDs: 464:38]

The composition of choral music was important to Brahms throughout his life. For one thing he was deeply respectful of the German choral tradition, including masters such as Schütz and Bach. In addition, early in his career he had a direct involvement in choral music as the conductor of the Singakademie in Vienna (1863-4). His choral compositions cover a period of at least four decades and range from the early Ave Maria and Begräbnisgesang of 1858 through to the Op. 110 Motets, which were completed by 1889. This boxed set usefully gathers together his complete choral output, which constitutes over seven hours of music.

Three conductors are represented here. Carlo Maria Giulini is always worth hearing in Brahms – and in much else. Some time ago I reviewed another live account of Ein deutsches Requiem which he conducted in 1978. In that performance I felt the chorus was recessed in the sound-picture and also lacked some incisiveness; otherwise I admired the performance very much. In this Viennese performance, given when Giulini was 73 – not “already in his eighties” as the booklet notes would have us believe – the chorus, which I suspect is a professional one, is much more strongly present in the recording and they sing very well. The orchestral contribution is excellent too though it’s a slight oddity of the recorded balance that low notes on the harp tend to register quite prominently. Andreas Schmidt is a good baritone soloist and Barbara Bonney’s silvery tone has much to commend it though she certainly doesn’t efface memories of more characterful predecessors such as Elisabeth Grümmer (for Kempe) or Schwarzkopf (for Klemperer). Giulini conducts with distinction and dedication. His is a deeply considered reading but the drama comes out too. I’d not heard this recording before and it impressed me.

The other choral/orchestral items are in the hands of Giuseppe Sinopoli and come from a series of Brahms recordings that he made in Prague in 1982 in time to be issued the following year to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. In the booklet we read that Sinopoli went to considerable trouble to mark into all the performing parts various corrections that Brahms made after the pieces had been published by Simrock. These corrections were previously unrecorded and it’s not made clear quite how extensive they were – I suspect they amounted to internal details not readily discernible by the listener. These recordings were also unknown to me previously but they’re good ones.

The early Goethe cantata Rinaldo for tenor, male chorus and orchestra (1863-68) is a relative rarity. I can’t say I find myself particularly drawn to the piece though I’ve seen it argued that it’s the nearest Brahms came to operatic writing. Comparing it with the 1968 Decca recording, conducted by Claudio Abbado, the key difference is that René Kollo is infinitely preferable to James King, Abbado’s tenor. Kollo’s timbre is sweeter, though he’s perfectly capable of delivering the passages that require vocal heft. Heard next to him King sounds strained and his voice doesn’t fall pleasingly on the ear. Sinopoli and his Czech forces make as good a case as they can for the work but I doubt I shall be listening to this piece again anytime soon. Gesang der Parzen receives a dramatic performance.

On the third disc Brigitte Fassbaender is an ideal soloist to complement Sinopoli’s searching account of the Alt-Rhapsodie; her singing is fervent. The lovely Schicksalslied begins with a marvellously sculpted account of the orchestral introduction and the choral passages that follow are equally fine. Let us move swiftly past Triumphlied. The composer himself later dismissed it as “imperial rubbish” and I’m not going to argue with him. It’s hard to see any case for reviving it nowadays other than as part of a complete edition. The glorious Nänie is quite another matter. I didn’t know it until I had the chance to sing in some performances well over twenty years ago when I immediately fell under its spell. I’ve long admired Abbado’s DG recording and Sinopoli’s reading is pretty impressive also. Brahms is so eloquent in this music and I firmly believe we should hear this piece more often.

The remainder of the set consists of Brahms’s shorter choral works and for these we’re in the very capable hands of Günter Jena and the NDR Chor. This radio choir is based in the composer’s birthplace, Hamburg, so it’s fitting that they should make such a substantial contribution to this set. They immediately show their pedigree in the early Marienlieder (1859) and give a sensitive performance of Geistliches Lied (1856). The Motets Op 74 come from later in Brahms’s career and they’re more powerful utterances that the aforementioned early pieces. That’s especially true of Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen, which is a searching and strongly felt piece. Jena and his singers give it strong advocacy. The early Begräbnisgesang is a particular example of Brahms’s indebtedness to and respect for his German musical forbears. It’s a dark, serious piece and the NDR choir and players project it very powerfully.

The Op 17 Gesänge for female voices feature a most unusual and effective accompaniment by a harp and two horns; they’re delightful and the present performances are excellent. So too are the accounts of two late sets of pieces, the Fest- und Gedenksprüche and the Op 110 Motets. If I’m honest the remainder of the collection is music that I find less interesting. It’s all extremely well-crafted and it all has a role in widening our appreciation of Brahms but individually most of the pieces are quite slight and I doubt I shall return to them often, if at all. However, it’s right and proper that they’re all included here and Günter Jena and the NDR Chor are never less than wholly reliable in performing them.

This is a valuable collection and the Giulini and Sinopoli performances of the major works are all well worth hearing. The sound is consistently good. The booklet essay is serviceable, though no more than that. No texts are provided and that’s a cause for regret when the words of so many of these pieces will be unfamiliar to many collectors. The texts and English translations can be downloaded from the DG website but that’s nowhere near as convenient as having them in the booklet.

John Quinn



CD 1 [73:30]

Ein deutsches Requiem , Op. 45

Barbara Bonney (soprano); Andreas Schmidt (baritone); Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor; Wiener Philharmoniker/Carlo Maria Giulini

rec. live, June 1987, Musikverein, Großer Saal, Vienna

CD 2 [47:42]

Rinaldo, Op. 50

Gesang der Parzen, Op.89

René Kollo (tenor); Prague Philharmonic Chorus; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Giuseppe Sinopoli

rec. 1982, Rudolfinum, Prague

CD 3 [69:32]

Alt-Rhapsodie, Op. 53

Schicksalslied, Op 54

Triumphlied, Op. 55

Nänie, Op. 82

Brigitte Fassbaender (contralto); Prague Philharmonic Chorus; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Giuseppe Sinopoli

rec. 1982, Rudolfinum, Prague

CD 4 [73:52]

Marienlieder, Op. 22

Ave Maria, Op. 12

Der 13. Psalm, Op. 27

2 Motetten, Op. 29

Geistliches Lied, Op. 30

3 geistliches Chöre, Op 37

2 Motetten, Op. 74

Begräbnisgesang, Op. 13

NDR Chor and Sinfonieorchester/Günter Jena

CD 5 [75:57]

Fest- und Gedenksprüche, Op 109

3 Motetten, Op 110

Gesänge, Op 17

5 Lieder, Op 41

3 Gesänge, Op 42

12 Lieder und Romanzen, Op 44

Gernot Kähl (piano); NDR Chor/Günter Jena

CD 6 [74:07]

7 Lieder, Op. 62

Lieder und Romanzen, Op 93a

5 Gesänge, Op 104

Kleine Hochzeitskantate WoO post. 16

Tafellied “Dank der Damen”, op. 93b

Dem dunkelnSchoß der heil’gen Erde WoO post. 20

7 Kanons

13 Kanons, Op 113

NDR Chor/Günter Jena

CD 7 [49:58]

14 deutsche Volkslieder WoO 34

12 deutsche Volkslieder WoO post. 35

Edith Mathis (soprano); NDR Chor/Günter Jena

CDs 4-7: rec. 1981-82, NDR Funkhaus, Hamburg

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