Thursday, February 5, 2015

In Search of Brahms' "Complete" Choral Works

Deutsche Gramaphon 479 4020 (7-CD box set) (2015 compilation)
Brahms: Complete Choral Music:
Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) Op 45.
Barbara Bonney/Andreas Schmidt
Carlo Maria Giulini/Vienna Philharmonic et al.
Rinaldo Op. 50 (Rene Kollo)
Alto Rhapsody Op. 53 (Brigitte Fassbender)
Schicksalslied (Songs of Destiny) Op. 54
Triumphlied (Song of Triumph) Op. 55 
Nänie Op. 82 
Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates) Op. 89
Giuseppe Sinopoli/Prague PO Chorus/Czech Philharmonic
Complete Works for a cappella chorus:
13 Kanons (Canons) Op. 11; Ave Maria Op. 12; Begräbnesgesang (Funeral Song) Op. 13;
4 Gesänge Op. 17: Marienlieder (Songs of Virgin Mary) Op. 22; Psalm 13 Op. 27; 
Motets Op. 29, 74, 110; Geistliches Lied (Spiritual Song) Op. 30;
3 Geistliches Chöre (Sacred Choruses) Op. 37; 5 Lieder Op. 41;
Gesänge Op. 42 & 62; 12 Lieder und Romanzen (Songs and Romances) Op. 44;
7 Lieder und Romanzen Op. 93a; Tafellied (Table Song) Op. 93b; 
5 Lieder Op. 104;  Fest und Gedenksprüche (Celebration and Thanksgiving) Op. 109;
Kleine Hochzeits Kantate (A Little Wedding Cantata) WoO 16;
Dem Dunkeln Schoß  (The Dark Womb of Sacred Earth) WoO 20;
7 Kanons (Canons) WoO 24-30;
Deutsches Volkslieder (German Folk Songs) WoO 34 & 35
Gunther Jena/NDR (North-German Radio) Choir

Brilliant Classics 92179 (8-CD box set) (2003)
Brahms: Choral Works
Nicol Matt/Chamber Choir of Europe

Brilliant Classics 94262  (6-disc set with CD-ROM) (2011 re-issue)
Choral Classics: Brahms Choral Works
13 Kanons (Canons) Op. 11; Ave Maria Op. 12;  4 Gesänge Op. 17: 
Marienlieder (Songs of St. Mary) Op. 22; Psalm 13 Op. 27; 
Motets Op. 29, 74, 110; Geistliches Lied (Spiritual Song) Op. 30;
Vocal Quartets Op. 31, 64, 92 & 112a; 
3 Geistliches Chöre (Sacred Choruses) Op. 37; 5 Lieder Op. 41;
Gesänge Op. 42 & 62; 12 Lieder und Romanzen (Songs and Romances) Op. 44;
Liebesliederwalzer (Love Song Waltzes) Op. 52; 
Neues Liebesliederwalzer (New Love Song Waltzes) Op. 65;
7 Lieder und Romanzen Op. 93a; Tafellied (Table Song) Op. 93b; 
Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs) Op. 103 & 112b;
5 Lieder Op. 104;  Fest und Gedenksprüche (Celebration and Thanksgiving) Op. 109
Kleine Hochzeits Kantate (A Little Wedding Cantata) WoO 16
Missa Canonica WoO 18;
Dem Dunkeln Schoß  (The Dark Womb of Sacred Earth) WoO 20
7 Kanons (Canons) WoO 24-30;
7 Volkslieder (Folk Songs) WoO 33;
Deutsches Volkslieder (German Folk Songs) WoO 34 & 35
Nicol Matt/Chamber Choir of Europe

Not to split musicological hairs, but this recent box set from Deutsche Gramophone's Collector's Edition series does not, in fact, contain the "complete" choral works of Brahms. Even if one were not to allow that those pieces originally conceived for vocal quartet should be counted alongside those composed with a choir or large chorus in mind, this collection omits the Missa Canonica WoO 18, as well as the 7 Volkslieder (Folk Songs) WoO 33. (I do, personally, count the vocal quartets as legitimately belonging to Brahms' overall choral ouevre when they are presented by larger groups, as they can be particularly effective when "fleshed out".) I suppose this set's omissions aren't really such a big deal--and certainly, not an issue worthy of a hissy fit-- but, on the other hand, classical complete-ists really do expect completeness when a collection is advertised as such.

Happily, the set does include fine performances of all the works for chorus and orchestra, as well as most (not all) of the works for a cappella choir or chorus with non-orchestral accompaniment. Gunther Jena's survey of this latter repertory was originally released on digital LP in 1983 as part of Deutsche Gramophone's lavish Brahms edition, marking the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth. (DG 2741 018). The vocal quartets, performed as such, were released on a separate volume in the series. The Jena set has been re-issued on CD several times, including a 4-disc package from 1996, and, most recently, as part of DG's  massive 46-disc Complete Works of Brahms box (DG 001302602 (2009)).

Jena's interpretations are uniformly serviceable, if seldom among the very greatest; his tempi agreeably logical, his sound ideal, to my ears, a bit dense and occasionally overblown. The recordings seem to have originated in multiple sessions made in disparate venues over the course of several years, and the contrast from track to track  can be quite jarring, especially where the occasional soloist is miced too closely at the expense of the chorus, thus skewing the listener's aural perspective. On the very positive side, Jena's pacing of the charming Marienlieder Op. 22 is as good as it gets; his reading of the blithe and bubbly Taffelied (Table (or Toasting) Song) a frothy treat, and the set includes a very fine rendition of the magnificent Begräbnesgesang (Funeral Song) Op. 13 with its unusual wind-band accompaniment. In the final analysis, there's nothing technically "wrong" with any of these performances, and a casual collector looking for this repertory in a convenient, relatively inexpensive format will not be disappointed.

And yet, there are decidedly superior performances, better focused and more consistently well recorded, all easily available at present, which I would certainly recommend ahead of the DG set. Topping that list are the absorbing, unfailingly gorgeous, consistently wonderful readings by Nicol Matt and the Chamber Choir of Europe for Brilliant Classics, originally issued in an 8-disc box set from 2003 (92179), currently available on an even better-sounding (and bargain-priced to boot!)  6-disc album from 2011 (94262). Matt's survey takes in the works for vocal quartet, including both sets of Liebeslieder Waltzes (Op. 52 and 65), and the Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs) Op. 103 & 112b. It includes the WoO 33 folk song settings, and three movements from the Missa Canonica WoO 18, with its soaring themes borrowed from the sacred motet Op. 74 #1; the posthumously published work has been known to musicologists since 1903, so it's hard to understand why Jena and DG would have overlooked it eight decades later. Still, ultimately, Matt doesn't get any closer to "complete" than Jena, as the Brilliant Classics set excludes the Begräbnesgesang, as well as the organ-accompanied Kyrie movement from the Missa (which can be found on Marcus Creed's lovely disc of Brahms' sacred choral works with the RIAS Chamber Choir (Harmonia Mundi HMG 501591 (2009)). 

Matt's choral sound ideal is consistently lucid and transparent, and this is nowhere more evident or impressive than in the seven sacred motets (two each from Opus 29 and 74, and the three that comprise Opus 110). The conductor seems to have instructed each section to produce its own very discrete vocal color, which, in effect, allows individual lines to stand out subtly within the ensemble, regardless of how "busy" or densely textured the whole. The composer's exquisite contrapuntal textures are, thus, never muddied; no single part allowed to overpower another. These interpretations approach the finest available, though for what is probably the best single-disc survey of Brahms' sacred choral works, I would wholeheartedly recommend Martin Best with the Corydon Singers (Helios  CDH 55346 (2010 re-issue of Hyperion CDA 66389 (1991)), stirring, technically impressive performances, ravishingly recorded.

Thankfully, both Jena and Matt do see fit to include Brahms' sublime if all-too-brief  setting of Schiller's Dem Dunkeln Schoß  (The Dark Womb of Sacred Earth) from the great poet's epic Song of the Bell, one of the most beautiful choral pieces ever composed. (I place it, lovingly, alongside the vocal quartet Op. 92 #1, O Schöne Nacht (O Lovely Night) (found on the Matt set), as one of those pieces I would take with me to that proverbial desert isle, or, at least, insist on having performed at my funeral.) Both conductors acquit themselves admirably in the shorter, lighter pieces.

As to the works for chorus and orchestra: Carlo Maria Giulini's live 1987 reading of  Ein Deutsches Requiem Op 45 with the Vienna Philharmonic and Singverein is among the finest recordings of the piece made in recent decades, benefiting greatly from a marvelous pair of soloists. Barbara Bonney's ravishing soprano elucidates the composer's glorious lyric lines with seeming effortless grace, while Andreas Schmidt brings a lyric sensitivity to the more extensive baritone part, with more than ample dramatic weight. Unsurprisingly, Giulini's reading has been re-issued on a fairly regular basis over the intervening thirty years, perhaps most familiarly as part of the DG Masters Series (445 546 (1995)), as well as the 2009 Complete Works box set.

Giuseppe Sinopoli's survey of the remaining orchestra-accompanied works was recorded in Prague in 1982, a joint production of Deutsche Gramophone and the Czech Supraphon label. Again, as with Jena's readings of the a cappella works, these are good, note-perfect performances, well recorded. On first hearing I found  Sinopoli's approach rather dry more often than not, and even a bit earthbound notwithstanding their technical impressiveness. Subsequent hearings have done much to convince me, however. Sinopoli's Rinaldo is probably the best on record, and the Alto Rhapsody Op. 50 with Brigitte Fassbender is very fine indeed, notwithstanding stiff historical competition from the likes of  Christa Ludwig and Dame Janet Baker; the music here seemingly sculpted with masterly dramatic understatement and near-perfect pacing. The set also includes satisfying, richly-detailed performances of the Schicksalslied (Songs of Destiny) Op. 54 with its echoes of Ein Deutsches Requiem, the sublime Nänie Op. 82, and the autumnal masterpiece  Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates) Op. 89.

I'd also add a quick word about two of the less-familiar works in this set:

Rinaldo Op. 50 
Brahms' dramatic cantata, based on Goethe's free reinterpretation of Tasso, was begun in 1863 when the composer was thirty, but not completed till several years later, and was thus published with a deceptively high opus number. The music clearly shows the youthful influence of Schumann, and, in fact, had the older composer written this, it would probably be hailed as a minor masterpiece alongside Faust and Das Paradies und die Peri. As a fairly early, stylistically atypical work of Brahms, however, it is sometimes regarded as little more than a footnote, a singular curiosity. A few too many misguided, overblown interpretations of the work haven't done much for its fortunes, either. Most notably in recent times, Claudio Abbado with the heroic tenor James King, seemed to regard the music as Brahms' attempt to channel Wagner--that performance was most recently available on a 2-disc compilation from Decca (452-582-2 (1997)) Fortunately, Sinopoli with soloist Rene Kollo "get" what Abbado and King didn't, turning in a convincingly lyrical, pleasingly fleet-footed performance that makes the best possible case for the work.

Triumphlied (Song of Triumph) Op. 55 
Not atypical as a piece of mid-nineteenth-century "occasional music", but quite unique when considered within the context of Brahms' total oeuvre, the Opus 55 Triumphlied is very much cut from the same flashy cloth as better-known "grand gestures" of the period like the Bruckner Te Deum and Psalm 150, or Mendelssohn's choral Psalms, all composed for big public occasions. An appropriately celebratory text from the book of Revelations is set straightforwardly, without a great deal of contrapuntal subtlety, while the "flashy" brass-heavy orchestral part is an uncanny foreshadowing of the composer's Opus 80 Academic Festival Overture. I don't think it would be at all unfair to call this work a curiosity, albeit a fairly diverting one.

In sum, though mindful of the caveats noted above, I can recommend the DG set, especially for the fine performances of the large-scale pieces. Those in search of a good single-disc survey of the orchestra-accompanied works may wish to explore Naxos 8.572694 (2012). This disc represents an extraordinary bargain, as it  includes superb performances of the Alto Rhapsody Op. 53 (soloist Ewa Wolak), Schicksalslied (Songs of Destiny) Op. 54, Nänie Op. 82, and Gesang der Parzen Op. 89. Conductor Antoni Witt also leads his fine Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra in excellent readings of the Opus 12 Ave Maria, and Opus 13 Begräbnesgesang. 

The two sets of Liebeslieder Waltzes and other works originally composed for vocal quartet have fared quite impressively on record in the digital era. John Eliot Gardiner's 1992 outing for Philips (currently available as a Philips Originals re-issue (666-902-2 (2006)) is rightly admired, but I would enthusiastically commend Robert Shaw's 1993 performances instead (Telarc CD-80236). The Telarc disc includes both the Opus 52 and 65 sets in addition to breathtakingly gorgeous essays of some of the composer's most beautiful "night songs". As good as Gardiner may be in this repertory, Shaw is nothing short of sublime.


Harmonia Mundi HMC 901122 (1983)
Brahms: Motets Op. 29, 74, & 110
Fest und Gedenksprüche Op. 109
Philippe Hereweghe/La Chappelle Royale/Ghent Collegium Vocale

RCA RCD1 4916 (1984)
Brahms Songs and Romances
Ave Maria Op. 12
4 Lieder Op. 17: 6 Lieder Op. 93a
Taffellied Op. 93b
Lieder und Romanzen Op. 44
Richard Westenburg/Musica Sacra

Hyperion CDA 66389 (1991)
Helios  CDH 55346 (2010 re-issue)
Musical Heritage Society MHS 514509A (1997 re-issue)
Brahms: Motets Op. 29, 74, & 110
Geistliches Lied Op. 30: Ave Maria Op. 12
3 Geistliches Chöre (Sacred Choruses) Op. 37
Psalm 13 Op. 27: Fest und Gedenksprüche Op. 109
Matthew Best/Corydon Singers et al.

Philips (The Originals) 666-902-2 (2006 re-issue from 1992)
Brahms Choral Works
Liebeslieder Waltzes Op. 52
4 Lieder Op. 17
Lieder Op. 42 & 102
Quartets Op. 92
John Eliot Gardiner/The Monteverdi Choir

Telarc CD-80236 (1993)
Brahms: Liebeslieder Waltzes--Evening Songs
Liebeslieder Waltzes Op. 52
Neues Liebeslieder Waltzes Op. 65
selections from Op. 42, 62, 64, 92, 103, 112
Robert Shaw/Robert Shaw Festival Singers

Decca (Double Decker) 452-582-2 (2-CD set) (1997 compilation)
Brahms: Choral Works
Begräbnesgesang  Op. 13
Alto Rhapsody Op. 53 (Jard van Ness)
Schicksalslied (Songs of Destiny) Op. 54
Nänie Op. 82 
Gesang der Parzen Op. 89
Herbert Blomstedt/San Francisco Symphony and Chorus
Rinaldo Op. 50 (James King)
Claudio Abbado/Ambrosian Chorus/New Philharmonia
Motets Op. 29, 74, & 110
Geistliches Lied Op. 30
Simon Preston/New English Singers

Chandos CHAN 9671 (1999)
Brahms A Cappella
Marienlieder Op. 22: 
Motets Op. 29. 74 & 110
Fest und Gedenksprüche Op. 109
Stefan Parkman/Danish National Radio Choir

Chandos CHAN 9806 (2000)
Brahms Choral Works
Op. 17, 42, 103, 104, 112
Stefan Parkman/Danish National Radio Choir

Harmonia Mundi HMG 501591 (2009)
Brahms Geistliche Chormusik (Sacred Choral Music)
Motets Op. 29, 74, & 110
Fest und Gedenksprüche Op. 109
Missa Canonica WoO 18
Marcus Creed/RIAS Chamber Choir

Harmonia Mundi HMG 501592 (2-CD set) (2010)
Brahms: Secular Choral Songs
Songs Op. 17, 42, 62, 104
Quartets Op. 31, 64. 92, 112a
Zigeunerlieder Op. 103 & Op. 112b
Marcus Creed/RIAS Chamber Choir

Naxos 8.572694 (2012)
Brahms Choral Music
Ave Maria Op. 12
Begräbnesgesang  Op. 13
Alto Rhapsody Op. 53 (Ewa Wolak)
Schicksalslied (Songs of Destiny) Op. 54
Nänie Op. 82 
Gesang der Parzen Op. 89
Antoni Wit/Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra

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