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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Choral Works
Schicksalslied, Op. 54 (1871) [15:05]
Warum ist das Licht gegeben den Mühseligen, Op. 74, No. 1 (1856-77/78) [9:44]
Nänie, Op. 82 (1881) [11:11]
Drei Gesänge, Op. 42 (1859-61) [8:55]
Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang, Op. 17/1 (1860) [3:23]
Geistliches Lied, Op. 30 (1856) [4:35]
Antonio Adriani (horn), Elsie Bedleem (harp), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin /Gijs Leenaars
rec. 2018, Großen Sendesaal Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, Berlin
SONY CLASSICAL 19075940722 [53:53]

The six choral pieces in this collection span a creative period of Brahms’s twenty-five years. Apart from the Requiem, the extent to which his choral works remain unknown to his many admirers is surprising.

The opening work is Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) scored for mixed choir and orchestra. Brahms began this setting of a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin in 1868, and completed it in 1871. His friend Albert Dietrich remembered the composer watching the sea during a trip to the coastal town of Wilhelmshaven as an inspiration for the Song of Destiny. The score is in three movements, an adagio Ihr wandelt droben im Licht, an allegro Doch uns ist gegeben, and another adagio in the form of a short but most splendid orchestral postlude. In this masterpiece, the chorus respond with empathy to the sombre message of Hölderlin’s text, providing impeccable singing and achieving ecstatic heights.

Next comes the first of the Two Motets for unaccompanied mixed choir, Op. 74, Warum ist das Licht gegeben den Mühseligen (Why has light been given to the weary of soul), based on Biblical texts and chorales. Brahms wrote the score in 1877 during a blissful summer holiday at Pörtschach, the resort and lakeside town on Wörthersee, Austria. (For some reason, the shorter motet, O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf, has not been included.) In four parts, Warum ist das Licht gegeben is a lovely setting of scripture complete with often inspiring episodes successfully communicated by the Rundfunkchor.

Another Brahms masterwork is Nänie for mixed choir and orchestra, written in 1881, a setting of words from Friedrich Schiller’s poem Nänie (a Germanised form of the Latin naenia, meaning funeral song). It opens with the words Auch das Schöne muß sterben (Even the beautiful must die). Brahms wrote it to mark the death in 1880 of painter Anselm Feuerbach. The choir and orchestra successfully communicate a sense of consolation in this lamentation on the inexorability of man dying.

Drei Gesänge (Three Songs), Op. 42 from 1859-1861 are Brahms’s earliest secular part-songs from a time when he was trying to build up his participation in choral conducting. He scored the works for six-part mixed choir (there is optional piano accompaniment, not on this recording). No. 1 Abendständchen (Evening Serenade) sets the text by Clemens Brentano, No. 2 Vineta – by Wilhelm Müller, and No. 3 Darthulas Grabesgesang (Darthula’s Grave Song) – by James Macpherson. Evident here is the concentration of the Rundfunkchor who convey delicate colours and understated temperaments.

Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang (The Full Sound of a Harp Resounds) is next. It is the first of Vier Gesänge (Four Songs), Op. 17. Written in 1860 for the Hamburg Frauenchor, this short work is scored for three-part female choir, horn and harp, a favourite of mine on this disc. The admirable solo contributions of horn player Antonio Adriani and harpist Elsie Bedleem blend quite enchantingly with the Rundfunkchor.

The concluding work on the album is Geistliches Lied (Spiritual Song), Op. 30 from 1856. This is a setting of three strophes by poet Paul Fleming, the sixteenth-century German poet, originally scored for mixed choir and organ or just organ. Here we have John Eliot Gardiner’s 2008 arrangement for mixed choir and string orchestra, a combination that works exceptionally well. I wonder if Vaughan Williams took inspiration from this piece or other Brahms choral works; I hear echoes of the great German composer in his writing.

The Dutch choral specialist Gijs Leenaars conducts warm and satisfying settings of these extremely attractive works, that are genuinely as satisfying as I have heard. Achieving plenty of atmosphere, these marvellous performances from the renowned Rundfunkchor Berlin are hard to beat, notable for the steadfast unity and focused singing. The singing is accurate but not at the expense of loss of character. The DSO Berlin are on splendid form; they give just the right level of freshness and vitality, mindful of not swamping the Rundfunkchor. The studio recording gives us the sound with splendid bloom, warm and clear, and achieves a pleasing balance between chorus and orchestra.

My major grumble concerns the lack of any sung texts and English translations in the booklet: disappointing, to say the least. In addition, the playing time of just under fifty-four minutes is certainly meagre by current standards. It is puzzling why additional works were not included to increase the desirability of the album.

In these glorious Brahms choral works, Gijs Leenaars conducts captivating performances that will deservedly sit firmly in my collection.

Michael Cookson

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