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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Mark Templeton, Helen Vollam, Patrick Jackman (trombones), Alexander Mason (organ),
Tenebrae/Nigel Short
rec. 2-4 January 2015, Temple Church, London, England, UK

It was an excellent idea to put together on one disc many of the motets and shorter choral works of these two giants of nineteenth century music. They are both probably best known for their instrumental music; but for each, choral music was of immense importance. Bruckner was organist for many years at the cathedral of Linz, while for Brahms, his work as a choral conductor was of great importance – for one thing, it was the reason behind his move to Vienna in 1863, when he took over as conductor of the Vienna Singakademie.

It is ironic, then, that these two found themselves on opposing sides of German (and European) music in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The cause was Wagner – Bruckner was a fervent admirer, Brahms highly sceptical, though possibly not as bitterly anti-Wagnerian as is often believed. Both composers were essentially traditionalists, deeply aware of their musical past and its heritage, while being committed to the future of German music.

It is their connections with that heritage that are most clearly apparent on this fine disc. Much of the music is unaccompanied, with occasional appearances from organ and trombones. The Bruckner motets are well-known, some of them popular, amongst choristers and lovers of choral music. However, they are rarely heard performed with such intensity and confidence as we hear from Tenebrae. In their hands, a work such as ‘Christus factus est’ (track 4) is turned into something of great drama. Nigel Short goes for enormously wide tonal contrasts, and he has such fine singers that they can deliver these wonderfully well. They also maintain their accuracy of tuning seemingly effortlessly. I know you can work wonders with modern recording technology; but there is no faking this degree of internal euphony! Sometimes, I feel the basses work a little too hard, their ferocity of attack in the forte passages at odds with the cool sound of the women, while the tenors are at times guilty of a rather thin, nasal tone in their higher register. These are small reservations; the standard of the singing, in its control, unanimity and musicianship, is generally exceptionally high.

Another impressive aspect is the way Short has encouraged a different style of singing, and a subtly different sound quality for the works of the two composers. Generally, he takes a cooler, more austere approach to the Bruckner, while he achieves a warmer, more engaged sound for Brahms, both of these entirely in keeping with the character of the music.

Brahms’ ‘Fest- und Gedenksprüche’ (‘Festival and Thanksgiving Texts’), Biblical settings from 1888 set for eight-part choir, demonstrate not only his understanding of choral writing, but also his patriotism in what Andrew Stewart’s notes tell us was known as the ‘Drei-Kaiser-Jahr’ (‘Three-Kaiser-Year’) – a Kaiser and his heir apparent died, and young Wilhelm II took the throne. He also tells us that, at the time of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 , Brahms considered signing up in the army – thank heaven the 37 year-old reconsidered.

Like the ‘Fest- und Gedenksprüche’, the Three Motets of op.110, composed in 1890, are written for double-choir. Both these and the Gedenksprüche pay a clear homage to Bach’s motets, and show a similar resourcefulness in writing for this challenging medium. I would however agree with the composer himself, who reckoned that op.110 was ‘better’ than op.109.

Following on from the motets, we have Brahms’s ‘Geistliches Lied’ (‘Spiritual Song’), which is an exquisite treasure. Its stunning complexities, incorporating two simultaneous canons at the 9th (an octave plus a note) do nothing to lessen its devotional beauty, and its final Amen is one of the most stunning moments on the whole CD – just glorious.

I mentioned the trombones; it was an inspired thought to ‘book-end’ the vocal items with the two Aequalis for trombone trio that Bruckner wrote for the funeral of an aunt. They are short, solemn pieces that make the perfect introduction and postlude to this fine programme.

One question though; what happened to ‘Os justi’? It’s a wonderful motet, one of Bruckner’s most uplifting. I am used to hearing it with the concluding plainsong ‘Alleluia’ that is to be found in all scores - that I have seen - of the work. Furthermore, the ‘Alleluia’ appears in the CD’s booklet text, and there is no reference to its omission in the notes. I know that there is a certain confusion about the sources of this motet; but it’s a pity that things haven’t been made clearer.

That said, this is a most distinguished recording – fine music performed with deep sensitivity and flawless technique, all presented in an exemplary recording.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: Simon Thompson (Recording of the Month)



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