Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen Op.74/1 [10:34]
Intermezzo Op.119/1 [4:04]
Fünf Gesänge Op.104 [13:22]
Schicksalslied Op.54 [14:59]
Drei Motetten Op.110 [8:56]
Drei Quartette [7:23]
Fest- und Gedenksprüche Op.109 [10:29]
Capella Amsterdam/Daniel Reuss
Philip Mayers and Angela Gassenhuber (pianos)
rec. 2012, Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902160 [70:08]
Throughout his career, Brahms aim was to marry the discipline
and structural techniques of the old masters he so admired to modern
Romantic expression. In his orchestral music, that process reached its
triumphant climax in the Passacaglia that ends the Fourth Symphony,
but the same ambition also governed his choral music, a useful survey
of which is provided in this disc. Roman Hinke’s booklet note
summarises this admirably when he describes Brahms’ aim as “to
yoke the sublime polyphonic art of the founding fathers, the old Netherlanders,
the genius Palestrina and his contemporaries, the Venetians and their
countless disciples, to the Romantic world of feeling and experience,
and thus de facto to bring about a fruitful renaissance in
musical practice.” He was very successful in doing so, as this
The title track, Warum ist das Licht, gets the air of lamentation
about right, and the atmosphere manages to be melancholy without being
doleful. Here, as elsewhere in the disc, Capella Amsterdam demonstrate
impressive clarity of approach. The motet’s second section, Lasset
uns, lifts the whole thing heavenwards, brightening the tone along
with the upward movement of the vocal line, and the third movement does
so all the more.
The three motets exemplify the composer’s later style, and are
very much under the influence of the Venetians and, north of the border,
of Schütz. The choir's tone becomes mellowed and more inward,
as befits both the style and intensity of sacred subject matter, and
listening to this, for me, posed interesting questions about the composer's
famously sceptical religious outlook. Is this really the music of someone
utterly devoid of faith?
Away from a church context, Brahms wrote several part songs for middle
class choral society groups, and he laboured long and hard over them.
That makes them beautiful gems. Two Nightwatches contrast very
well, one a bittersweet meditation on love, the other a more comforting
vision of divine protection. Last Happiness is then full of
comforting Romantic glow, and the sound world of Im Herbst
is as autumnal as the text's melancholy subject material, taking
a melting turn towards the major at the end.
The Schicksalslied sounds marvellously intimate in the four-hand
piano version. There is a particularly beautiful glow over beginning
and end, and this performance underlines the consolatory nature of the
text, in a way that the central section seems to deny.
The Three Quartets gain a whole extra layer of complexity with
the addition of the piano line, more evidence of composer's intense
commitment to what others might take as a throwaway project. The effect
is actually rather profound in Sehnsucht, more folksy and carefree
in Abendlied, while Nächtens is more febrile and uncertain,
both exciting and unsettling.
The Fest und Gedenksprüche, on the other hand, are complex
public utterances and they rise to it impressively. Listen, for example,
to the figure on “nicht zu Schanden” in the first song,
or the polychoral rhythmic resonances in the second, illustrating the
divisions of the kingdom of which it speaks. The effect is thrilling,
and it was here most of all that I noticed the hand of Schütz; even
maybe a touch of Palestrina? The bonus of the Op. 119 Intermezzo
is delicately played and thoughtful, perhaps adding more atmosphere
than serving any other function.
Throughout, the recording engineers keep some air around the sound,
giving a sense of space without losing the mostly intimate feeling.
Reuss’s direction manages to evoke a real
sense of profundity yet simultaneously intimacy, and the choir’s
sound never has a touch of the clinical that can infect some British
choirs in unaccompanied choral work like this. The sound is tight and
harmonious but beautifully blended with just the right sense of space.
As a curated introduction to some of Brahms’ choral music, this
does the job very nicely.