Brahms: Motets, Opp. 29, 74 & 110; Missa canonica; Lieder und Gesänge, Opp. 17, 42, 62 & 104; Vocal quartets, Opp. 31, 64, 92 & 112; Zigeunerlieder, Op. 103; Fest- und Gedenksprüche, Op. 109

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Motets, Opp. 29, 74 & 110; Missa canonica; Lieder und Gesänge, Opp. 17, 42, 62 & 104; Vocal quartets, Opp. 31, 64, 92 & 112; Zigeunerlieder, Op. 103; Fest- und Gedenksprüche, Op. 109
PERFORMER: RIAS Chamber Choir/Marcus Creed, etc
CATALOGUE NO: HMX 2901591-93 Reissue (1995-7)
Great German 19th-century composers looked back to the great period of polyphony; Mendelssohn revived the name of Bach, while Bruckner brought his expertise as a contrapuntist to phenomenal heights with studies of Palestrina. Brahms perfected his compositional techniques by studying music he found in Schumann’s private library and later traded contrapuntal exercises with Joachim. Although the German Requiem is the choral work by Brahms, there is a wealth of other music for the medium (his few conducting appointments were with choral societies). This set explores both sacred and secular music. The unaccompanied motets are for mixed choir from four to eight voices, the latter producing thick textures of orchestral colour, while the canons in the Missa canonica and the Motets, Op. 29, reveal Brahms’s total mastery of that complex form. The 35-strong Berlin Radio Chamber Choir under its English conductor Marcus Creed meets head on the chromatic harmonies of the two Motets, Op. 74, taxing the ability of any choir to sustain pitch. Their singing is superb, a blend of vibrato and range of tone colour achieved with apparent ease, the phrasing always stylish. The secular music includes four songs for women’s choir (Brahms formed such a choir in Hamburg), two horns and harp, the horn in the first song seeming about to launch into the finale of his First Symphony. After a slightly ragged start the choir settles into this unique and ravishing sound, the best a beautiful performance of ‘Der Gärtner’ (The Gardener). The quartets with piano, using texts from Goethe to forgotten minor poets, have a sophisticated, intimate charm, and yet are both melodically inventive and harmonically progressive, for which pianist Alain Planès uses a Riedel piano of the period (1870) in his sensitive accompaniments. The two sets of Gypsy Songs provide a contrast in rhythmic vitality and uninhibited mood while each of these revelatory discs shows how Brahms turned to the choir throughout his creative life to produce diverse and beautiful works. Christopher Fifield

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