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CD Review

Johannes Brahms

Harmonia Mundi HMC901591

Sacred Choral Music

  • Two Motets, Op. 74
  • Fest- und Gedenksprüche, Op. 109
  • Three Motets, Op. 110
  • Missa Canonica, Op. posth.
  • Two Motets, Op. 29
RIAS Chamber Choir/Marcus Creed
Harmonia Mundi HMC901591 60:51
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Technically dazzling.

Brahms' chamber and symphonic music has long since triumphed in the concert hall. It's difficult to think of him as an unknown quantity. Nevertheless, outside of perhaps four pieces - Ein deutsches Requiem, the two sets of Liebeslieder-Walzer, and to a lesser extent the Alt-Rhapsodie and Schicksalslied - people have little idea of the wealth of choral music Brahms left behind. He wrote it throughout his career, some in connection with various choir-director jobs, others to specific commissions or occasions, and still others just because he wanted to. His choral music covers a huge span of emotion and function. As you would expect, he wrote almost all of it to a very high standard indeed.

In my mind, Brahms' motets are the best since Bach, with some actually as good as Bach. Certainly, Bach more than anyone else influenced their composition. For some reason, early on, Brahms felt the need to acquire a thorough knowledge of and facility with counterpoint. He spent about a year of rigorous self-study fooling around with canons, fugues, invertible counterpoint, and so on. To a great extent, he hides the "academic" use of counterpoint in his chamber and symphonic music, although he trots it out for special occasions in places like the passacaglia peroration of the Haydn Variations. Indeed, because of the usual absence of the traditional forms, most don't think of him as the contrapuntal genius he undoubtedly is. However, if one regards contrapuntal facility as the ability to maintain several planes of thematic activity simultaneously, then almost all of Brahms' music shows this. The difference between Brahms' counterpoint and Bach's comes down to, not quality, but their different effects. For Bach, counterpoint intensifies rhythm and the sense of dance. For Brahms, counterpoint typically emphasizes singing. I can recall no better example than the little-known Geistliches Lied, Op. 30, for choir and organ, which sounds like a Mendelssohnian song without words and is in reality a double canon at the ninth with a free accompaniment. The motets, however, represent the zenith of Brahms' contrapuntal art. But it's not all counterpoint. Technique serves expression. These works plunge deep into the heart. But they wouldn't strike quite so deep without a strong appeal to the head as well. Almost everything on this CD is The Best Thing Brahms Ever Wrote.

The Op. 29 motets - "Es ist das Heil uns kommen her" ("our salvation has come to us") and "Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein reines Herz" ("create in me, God, a pure heart") - seem based on two Bach types. "Es ist das Heil" represents the strophic variation of a chorale tune, like Bach's "Jesu, meine Freude" ("Jesus, my joy"), while "Schaffe in mir" is thematically free, although even more rigorously and sophisticatedly fashioned, similar in that sense to Bach's "Singet dem Herren ein neues Lied" ("sing to the Lord a new song"). "Es ist das Heil" follows a statement of the chorale with a fugue in which not only the subject derives from the chorale tune, but a cantus firmus bass actually restates the tune, in a procedure strikingly reminiscent of the opening chorus to Bach's Easter Cantata #4 "Christ lag in Todesbanden" ("Christ lay in the bonds of death"). "Schaffe in mir" ratchets up both the contrapuntal skill (Brahms wrote it about a year later) and the expressive power. Most listeners probably won't be aware of the counterpoint until the fugues, the first pleading for mercy, the second praising God's infinite love. Nevertheless, the opening choral statement, which sounds like a straightforward chorale, nevertheless features, if you dig, a canon in augmentation between the sopranos and the basses. The second movement, in contrast, is an obvious fugue, bristling with stretto to powerful effect. Brahms this follows this with a movement easily mistaken for simple Romantic pastoralism - in fact, a canon at the nudnik interval of the seventh among the voices.

The Missa Canonica is probably the earliest composition on the CD (somewhere around 1856) and was part of his self-study. Indeed, as far as I know, it's the only excercise from that period to have survived. Brahms periodically destroyed early sketches and notes. He didn't complete more than three movements: a Sanctus, a Benedictus, and an Agnus Dei. He recycled some of it into Op. 74 (1863-1878). A whiff of exercise hangs over the Mass, particularly over the Sanctus, and the title of the work slightly misleads. One finds not only canons but a fugue (at the beginning of the Agnus Dei). Much of this is beautiful indeed, but the later incarnation of the material in the first motet of Op. 74, "Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen" ("why is the light given to those weary in spirit") surpasses the mass. It's as if we watch the flowering of a bare branch. To some extent, the opening movement reminds me of Bach's Cantata #21 "Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis" ("I had much care"), with a declamatory opening followed by a fugue. The fugue elaborates the Agnus Dei fugue of the Mass. Its highly chromatic subject twists and corkscrews its way asking the tormented question (in the words of Oscar Hammerstein II) "why was I born?" But the real genius of the thing lies in Brahms' provision of a dramatic context for the fugues by the simplest of devices: the periodic choral cry "Warum?" ("why?"), one chord per syllable, again similar to Bach in Cantata #21 as well as to the anguished repeated cries of "komm" in the Bach motet "Komm, Jesu, komm." The Benedictus canon at, I think, the second appears in even more elaborate dress, and the work ends with a chorale harmonization of "Mit Fried und Freud" ("with peace and joy").

The second motet of Op. 74, "O Heiland, rei&szed; die Himmel auf" ("O Savior, throw the heavens open"), is mini but mighty. A chorale tune in Dorian mode is fragmented and turned in on itself. It's like watching a flock of birds suddenly diving at various times. Again, the musical model seems Bach's Cantata #4, but Brahms' counterpoint here outshines Bach's. Believe it, that realization shocks even me. Though highly filigreed, the Bach pattern of imitation is more regular. Brahms, on the other hand, lights a Roman candle of imitation: one bright explosion after another, and you can never anticipate when or of what. Again, we get variations on the chorale tune for each movement. The main device is canon - in the third movement, double canon at the fourth, and in the last movement, the parts entering closer and closer together.

The three Fest- und Gedenksprüche (almost untranslatable; "festival mottos" or "proverbs" gives some idea) came about as a kind of thank-you note to Hamburg for conferring on him the honorary freedom of the city in 1889. Unlike the motets, it celebrates rather than meditates. In general, the emotional tone is less complex and less dark. Here, Brahms experiments with double choir, following Bach in the motets "Singet dem Herren" and "Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf" ("the Holy Spirit helps our weakness"), as well as certain motets of Renaissance composer Heinrich Schuetz. It's not all that far-fetched. Brahms personally owned a lot of music, particularly music before Mozart and Haydn. Like many Romantics, Brahms had a taste for the antiquarian and a strong interest in early German music. He probably had as much personal acquaintance with early music as nearly anyone of his time. In the first movement, one choir hands off to another. In the second, we begin with much the same, with greater overlap. At the word "aber" ("but"), declaimed by both choirs, Brahms steals Bach's dramatic trick from Cantata #21 of changing the texture to something more integratedly imitative. Gradually and imperceptibly, he moves back to the alternation. In the third, the alternation occurs at first mainly between upper and lower voices but in its middle section moves back to handoffs from one choir to another. By Brahms' standard so far, this is almost relaxed music. Forget the technique for a moment, however, and you have a beautiful, rousing, highly expressive set. The second movement with its fanfare-like ideas puts me in mind of the Renaissance "tower music," and the third gives the listener a warm hug. Thanks indeed.

Brahms finished off his sacred choral music with the Op. 110 motets, another trilogy. Like much of his late work, it's music relatively stripped to bone and sinew. The counterpoint isn't so openly virtuosic or exuberant, and the psychology comes from the same dark woods as the Four Serious Songs and the fourth symphony. The technique doesn't call attention to itself but almost entirely serves expression. Don't, however, let the music fool you into thinking this is lesser technique. Brahms has mastered composition to such an extent, he can afford not to consciously consider his craft. At least, the music leaves you with that impression: that the music has made its way from within to the page without a hitch. The part-writing doesn't follow the usual paths - not even Brahms' usual paths - and yet the music sounds full, rather than scrambling or scrappy. The first motet, "Ich aber bin elend" ("but I am wretched"), contrasts biting dissonances and chromaticism with a gorgeous, radiant prayer for deliverance. The second, "Ach, arme Welt" ("alas, poor world") begins as a chorale setting, but a careful listen reveals that the old contrapuntal devices have crept in here and there. Brahms doesn't apply them strictly. He uses them in order to illuminate certain phrases of the text. Brahms crowns the set with "Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein" ("when we are in deepest need"), more double-choir writing and more openly imitative. The chromaticism is also at its most extreme. The motet ends with the two main ideas - an ascending chromatic line and a more heroic, strongly-rhythmic pattern - combining as the text gives thanks for God's love.

Brahms didn't make things easy either for his singers or for the choir director. Due to a misconception general at the time (perhaps even universal) about the Bach motets, Brahms created his works for a cappella chorus. Scholars today generally agree that in Bach's motets, instruments doubled voices. An instrumental accompaniment doesn't necessarily make Bach's motets any easier, but it does bring up a different set of problems. With Brahms, however, the problem is twofold. The choir has to have the chops - not only a strong sound (demanded by a Romantic choral style) and superb intonation (demanded by the extremely chromatic harmony) but also, because of the counterpoint, the ability to clarify texture. Interpretively, the motets - especially "Schaffe," "O Heiland," "Warum," and Op. 110 - require a conductor with symphonic smarts. This is merely what performers must bring to the table to have any chance of success at all. These works don't forgive game tries.

Marcus Creed's RIAS Chamber Choir is simply one of the finest in the world. Their choral technique is faultless: diction is crisp, attacks and rhythms of Cleveland Orchestra caliber, and intonation dead on. I may quibble with Creed's tempi for this or that movement, but, more important, Creed gives you a sense of the whole. He not only keeps things moving, he lets the listener "ride" the musical argument from here to there. The choir not only crescendos, it does the far more difficult job of gradually getting softer. This allows Creed to shape each movement with great subtlety. Furthermore, the choir's counterpoint is so clear, you could, if so inclined, lecture from the recording.

All that said, I must confess my affection for the account of the motets from Richard Marlow and the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge (Conifer CDCF178, n. l. A.). The RIAS Chamber Choir beats them by a few whiskers in the matter of technique, and Creed delineates the architecture better than Marlow. But the Trinitarians imbue this music with a humane warmth largely missing from the Germans. I would describe Marlow's account as amiable and loving. The Germans come across as very Protestant, very stern. I wouldn't take one over the other, and each group more or less comments on the other. It's the difference between the Beethoven symphonies by Walter and by Szell.

Still, Creed has delivered an outstanding disc of the hardest choral repertoire I can think of. Last time I looked, BMG Music Service had it available (BMG catalogue number: D118164). You might wait for a sale. Or you might just give in now.

Copyright © 2002, Steve Schwartz

Trumpet