Thursday 25 July 2013

Richard Strauss - Deutsche Mottete

Deutsche Motette - DCD34124
Richard Strauss isn't known for his choral music, and listening to the Deutsche Motette on this new recording you can understand why. The piece's demand are outrageous. On this new disc the choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and the choir of King's College, London come together under their conductors Geoffrey Webber and David Trendall to perform Strauss's Deutsche Motette along with earlier German Romantic choral music by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Rheinberger and Peter Cornelius.

They open with Strauss Deutsche Motette conducted by David Trendell. Strauss's setting of Rückert was completed in June 1913, after Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos and before the Alpine Symphony. So it is Strauss at the height of his powers. It is written for 16-part choir plus four main soloists (and an extra three at one point). The range extends from a bottom B flat in the fourth bass to a top D flat in the soprano part. The four main solo parts are very taxing, with the soprano and tenor placed ina very high tessitura. The piece was dedicated to Professor Hugo Riedel and his choir, the Hoftheater Chor. Riedel later went on to be chorus master at Bayreuth.

The opening section is one long dense and complex polyphonic exercise in extended rapture. This is group orgasm on the grand scale, with extended solo sections. The choir and soloists (Helen Massey, Kate Symonds-Joy, William Kendall, Tim Mirfin) manage magnificently. But, frankly it is not a work I could listen to on a regular basis, think Strauss at his most overwrought. Rückert's text is a pantheistic hymn to a deity keeping watch. Quite why it raise Strauss to such over the top feats, I am not sure.

Technically, the piece is superbly written, Strauss is incredibly assured in his handling of his material and the young singers certainly do him justice.

Afterwards it comes as a bit of a shock to hear Schumann's Vier doppelchörige Gesänge (Four double-choir songs) conducted Geoffrey Webber (who conducts all the remaining items on the disc, except for the final Peter Cornelius piece). Not the pieces are uncomplex, They date from 1848 and set poems by Rückert, Goethe and Johann Christian von Zedlitz.  In them, Schumann uses his double chorus with great variety, to provide himself with all manner of different scorings.

An die Sterne (To the stars: Rückert) uses a semi-chorus of four soloists to set off the main forces (a technique beloved of Mendelssohn). Schumann introduces chromatic harmonic moments and lovely deft weaving of texture. The young voices of the choir sing in lovely clear tones, giving fine shape to the music.

Ungewisses Licht (Uncertain light: von Zedlitz) starts as a lively march with the wanderer striding off through raging, streams and torrents. But the final strophe includes a contrasting section for solo voices ending in a tranquil four parts.

Zuversicht (Confidence: von Zedlitz) is a slower piece, with Schumann demonstrating the richness and simplicity of style. Here the choir gives on beautifully controlled performance. Finally, Talismane (Talismans: Goethe) full of interesting textures and contrasts, with the choir bringing out the fine details. The young voices tell here, with the clarity of the singing and quite slimline tone, particularly at the top.

Another shock in the next piece, as Schubert's Gott ist mein hirt (The Lord is my Shepherd, the 23rd psalm in a version by Moses Mendelssohn) is accompanied by David Ward's rather tinkly forte piano. It is a much simpler piece, but delightfully melodic. It was written for the four Fröhlich sisters (two sopranos and two altos) to sing at one of Schubert's musical soirees.

Brahms' O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf (O Saviour, tear down the heavens asunder: Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld) is a chorale motet. Essentially variations on a chorale, it is a vigorous, large scale piece, full of hints of Brahms' love for early music and with some striking passages of well-wrought polyphony.

Josef Rheinberger, six years younger than Brahms, is most most famous for his organ sonatas. His Abendlied (Evening Hymn, setting a verse from St. Luke's Gospel) was an early work, one of three motets published 1873. Far less polyphonic than the Brahms, but there are still hints of early music, along with echoes of Mendelssohn. A fine well-wrought piece in a nicely wrought performance.

Finally David Trendall conducts Peter Cornelius' Liebe, three choral songs setting poems by Johannes Scheffer. The work dates from 1872. Cornelius was friends with Hans von Bulow, Liszt and Wagner and Wagner's influence hoves very distantly into view in these piece, as does that of Brahms. Bit boned works, they are finely performed with sympathy by the choir, under David Trendall. That they don't make a Big Romantic Sound is something of a plus as this enables the fine details of the choir's performance to come over.

The 19th century German tradition of unaccompanied choral music is one which tends to get a bit overlooked, except perhaps by choral singers themselves. Here we have a selection, given in very fine performances indeed. I could have wished perhaps for some Reger, for some music to indicate where Strauss's astonishing outburst come from, but the performances are finely done. And the Strauss is just stupendous.

Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949) - Deutsche Motette Op.62 [18.15] (1)
Robert Schumann (1810 - 1946) - Vier doppelchörige Gesänge Op.141 [15.15] (2)
Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828) - Gott ist mein Hirt D706 [5.32] (3)
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) - O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf Op.74 No.2 [4.53]
Josef Rheinberger (1839 - 1901) - Abendlied, Op.69 No.3 [3.00]
Peter Cornelius (1824 - 1874) - Liebe Op.18 [14.26]
Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
Choir of King's College, London
Helen Massey (soprano) (1)
Charity Mapletoft (soprano) (1)
Victoria Holden (soprano) (1)
Billie Robson (soprano) (1)
Poppy Ewence (soprano) (2)
Catherine Harrison (soprano) (2)
Ruby Dayan (soprano) (2)
Kate Symonds-Joy (contralto) (1)
Felicity McDermott (alto) (2)
Emma Gulifer (alto) (2)
William Kendall (tenor) (1)
James Way (tenor) (2)
Hugh Benson (tenor) (2)
Tim Mirfin (bass) (1)
Nicholas Crawford (bass) (2)
David Ward (forte-piano) (3)
Geoffrey Webber (conductor)
David Trendall (conductor)
Recorded St. John's Church, Upper Norwood, 4-6 July 2012
Delphian DCD34124 1CD [61.30]

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1 comment:

  1. This was indeed Strauss "at the height of his powers". The (recently) late Nikolaus Harnoncourt said of him that he was the "greatest natural genius in music after Mozart, and what did he do with it? 'Elektra' and 'Salome', and then what? He composed music with his left hand and played cards with his right".
    Harnoncourt's contemptuous remarks, and Mr Hugill's, need moderation. Look for example at the late-blossoming works, the 'Metamorphosen', the 'Four Last Songs', the witty (and hugely demanding, from a technical point of view) Oboe Concerto. Not to mention dozens of really good songs, composed at intervals throughout his life, which scarcely get a hearing, let alone a mention in critical notices such as Mr Hugills.
    So back to the essential thing here, the Deutsche Motette: yes, the demands from performers are huge, and there is probably no amateur choir in the world that could attempt it. That does not matter. No church choir, these days, could put on a Bach Cantata just every Sunday.

    This is a stunning work, which deserves to be heard, and sung, more often. Strauss' inspiration may have been secular, his motivations mercantile.

    But Bach would have approved. and that must surely be the touchstone.


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