Romantic Moments for Male Choir
Taipei Male Choir/Frieder Bernius
Sonntraud Engels-Benz (organ)
rec. Evangelische Kirche Gönningen, 1-3 February 2015
Booklet notes and texts in German, English and Chinese CARUS 2.602/99 [52:35]
What’s in a title? “Romantic Moments For Male Choir” suggests different things to different people, I suppose, but one thing it doesn’t suggest to me is “best seller”. Whether it’s intentional ambiguity, or some pedantic literalism by the people at Carus, I’m not sure, but in trying to reconcile it with the sub-title “Sacred Choral Works”, I found after some digging that “Romantic” is meant in the music-period sense. This is inferred, indeed, by the lifetimes of the composers listed on this CD. Given that fifteen tracks make up the 50-odd minutes of the programme, I can deduce with some certainty that title and sub-title together mean: short pieces of sacred choral music composed during the Romantic period for male choir. Phew!
If you think I’m being petty, the more serious matter is that I feel a disservice is being done here to the real focal point of this CD – the Taipei Male Choir. Not only are they disadvantaged, I suggest, by the title, but they share the smallest font on the booklet cover, almost disappearing into a dark cloud. Would the casual browser give this CD a second look?
To get everything off my chest, I should also remark on the narrowness of the programme, which tends to monotony when listening right through. Again, that’s no fault of the choir. The booklet notes mention it comprises “mostly unknown works dating from the founding period and heyday of the German male choir movement at the beginning of the 19th century”, the departures from “mostly” being brief excursions west (Faure), east (Bortnjanskij) and possibly the inclusion of two Liszt pieces. While sticking to their theme, the producers surely could have made other excursions to vary the programme and showcase the choir. Still, the die is cast, and I can only appraise what’s before me.
The rest is good - very good in fact. The Taipei Male Choir was founded in 1997 and has won several prestigious awards, including top world ranking for male choirs in 2006 from the INTERKULTUR Foundation, and sixth world ranking among all choirs. They have previously released three CDs, including one in collaboration with the Singphoniker, and I believe the current review is their first on MusicWeb International. For this CD, they are under the direction of the ubiquitous Frieder Bernius, who comments in the booklet on his preparation of the choir, particularly with their German diction. I’m pleased that he insists on performing in the original language, noting the inspiration of many composers “by the sound idiom of the language being set, as well as by the colours of its vowels”, an argument which is also relevant to Opera in English. On the matter of diction alone, Bernius and the choir have done their work very well.
From its very first utterances, the Taipei Male Choir establishes itself as a uniquely beautiful instrument. The high tenors give it something of a Welsh flavour, and immaculate internal balances carry right down through its tonal range. While I could detect no Slavic growl in its foundations, I would love to hear some Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky to prove me wrong. The opening Franz Abt piece is well chosen to demonstrate the qualities of the choir and its soloists. It is performed a cappella, as is most of the programme. Equally exquisite singing ensues for the following pieces, each of which is little jewel of its kind. As noted before, though, a certain sameness of mood and tempo sets in, and it’s something of a relief when the cheery fluidity of Faure’s Ave Maria intervenes mid-way. The tenor of the first half then returns for the rest of the programme. The Carus recording, appropriately in a church setting, places the choir very naturally, achieving an ideal balance between clarity and blend. The organ is also well captured.
There are such good things about this CD, but I kept saying to myself “if only ...”. After any two or three tracks I found my attention drifting, and could only see myself dipping into it now and again. It shouldn’t be like that with a choir of this quality, and the programming and production resources presumably at their disposal. I look forward to hearing and reviewing the Taipei Male Choir again, even in some more “romantic moments”, but where they can really strut their stuff.
Franz ABT (1819-1885) 1. Nun ist der laute Tag verhallt [5:41] Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
2. Ave maris stella [5:12] Bernhardt KLEIN (1793-1832)
3. Wie lieblich ist deine Wohnung [4:32] Jakob BLIED (1844-1884)
4. Aus der Tiefe rufe ich zu dir [4:32] Carl STEIN (1824-1902)
5. Bis hieher hat der Herr geholfen [1:38] Kaspar ETT (1788-1847)
6. Ave maris stella [3:30] Georg Joseph Abbé VOGLER (1749-1814)
7. In allen meinen Taten [2:55] Bernhard KLEIN
8. Ich hebe die Augen zu dir [4:20] Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
9. Ave Maria in A major (1871) [1:45] Bernhard KLEIN 10. Der Herr ist mein Hirt [3:25] Peter CORNELIUS (1824-1874)
11. Mitten wir im Leben sind [3:50]
12. Requiem aeternam (1852) [2:26] Conradin KREUTZER (1780-1849)
13. Stille ist das Haus der Klage [2:38] Dimitri Stepanowitsch BORTNIANSKY (1751-1825)
14. Lob, Preis und Dank sei dir [3:12] Franz LISZT
15. Pater noster III [3:40]