Thursday 17 December 2015

Brahms and Bruckner from Nigel Short and Tenebrae

Tenebrae - Brahms & Bruckner Motets
Brahms & Bruckner motets; Tenebrae, Nigel Short; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 10 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Motets by two 19th century giants in fine new versions

Whilst a history of 19th century classical music could be written passing from the symphonies of Mendelssohn, through those of Brahms to those of Bruckner, an entirely separate path could be trodden by considering these three composers as creators of sacred music. On this new disc on Signum Classics from Nigel Short and Tenebrae, the group put together a selection of Brahms’s motets along with those of Bruckner. From Bruckner we have Virga Jesse, Ecce sacerdos, Christus factus est, Locus  iste, Os justi, Ave Maria, Tota pulchra es and two of the Aequale. From Brahms we have Fest- und Gedenkspruche Op.109, Ave Maria Op.12, How Lovely are they Dwellings, Drei motetten Op.110 and Geistliches Lied Op.30.

Both composers' choral music is conditioned by their participation in some of the various 19th century movements which invigorated choral singing. Bruckner was influenced by the Cecilian movement which sought to improve the quality of Roman Catholic Church music. The composer Franz Xaver Witt, who produced a journal devoted to the cause of improving church music, talked about the problem of the ‘trashy church music’ favoured by Catholic parochial choirs, a comment which rather resonates today! Bruckner’s mature motets all very much follow Cecilian ideals influenced by the music of Palestrina. Brahms, by contrast, was influenced by the burgeoning amateur choral movement and he conducted amateur choirs in Hamburg. His Ave Maria was written for his Hamburg Women’s Chorus. Like Bruckner, Brahms was influenced by early music though in this case it was an array of composers like Bach, Palestrina, Isaac, Eccard and Schutz, with Brahms making a collection of early music. Whereas Bruckner’s motets, with their blocks of harmony, can sometimes seem like his symphonies in miniature, Brahms in his motets introduces a polyphonic complexity which gives the music a very distinct character.

The disc opens with a group of Bruckner’s pieces. First  Aequale No. 1 played by the three trombones of Mark Templeton, Helen Vollam and Patrick Jackman followed by the motet Virga Jesse. The choir consists of a basic group of 16 singers with seven others appearing on various tracks. They make a fine up-front sound with the tone quality lithe and focussed. This isn’t a big romantic sound, instead they bring intensity and an ideal firmness to the flexible lines.  Virga Jesse is performed with a nice flexibility and at a speed which keeps the music moving. Ecce sacerdos is large scale and very symphonic in feel, especially in the way Bruckner juxtaposes the various textures with the choir accompanied by organ and trombones, and the terraced dynamics with swift changes from loud to soft also recall Bruckner’s symphonic writing. Christus factus est is a stunning account of one of Bruckner’s most sophisticated motets, again symphonic in feel. Nigel Short keeps the piece moving but it never feels driven.  By contrast there is a steadiness and expansive to the tempo in Locus iste but it never feels over done. The motets are recorded in the quite resonant acoustic of the Temple Church, which means that the choir’s strongly focussed sound is surrounded by an acoustical aura.

Johannes Brahms' Fest- und Gedankspruche, Op.109 are three settings of Old and New Testament texts designed as a response to the Drei-Kaiser-Jahre of 1888 when three different German Emperors ruled in the same year; elderly Wilhlem I, his son Frederick III (Queen Victoria's son-in-law) who died young and Frederick's son Wilhelm II. Unsere Vater hofften auf dich is sung at quite a lively tempo with some swift passagework. The texture is very different to Bruckner, with Brahms writing complex polyphonic lines which very much have Bach in the background. Wenn ein starker Gewappneter is performed in a similar style and works rather well, though I have to admit that I am used to performances which are rather heavier in feel. The high sopranos bring a lovely evenness and clarity to their line. Finally Wo ist ein so herrlich Volk is gently shapely, yet firm of line and here the group give us some lovely moments of almost Brucknerian shapeliness.

Bruckner’s Os justi comes next; Nigel Short takes it quite slowly but it is not grandiose and the firm flexibility of the choir’s tone gives it a nice intensity. Andrew Stewart’s excellent notes mention that the premiere of the revised version of the motet took place in 1879 with Bruckner at the organ. Given that the motet is unaccompanied, this suggests that the choir may have sung it with discreet organ support and I would be interested to learn more.

Brahms’s Ave Maria is written for female chorus and the choir here makes it a thing of grace, with a lovely clarity to the women’s lines. Next comes not a motet but the chorus How lovely are thy dwellings from Ein deutsches Requiem. This does seem to sit slightly oddly in the programme, and I was disappointed that more of Brahms’s motets were not included. And singing the chorus in English seems to sit rather oddly with the Latin and German of the remainder of the programme. That said, the performance has a lovely lilt to it though the organ sounds a little lithe and edgy for my taste.

Bruckner’s Ave Maria comes by way of contrast. It is written for full choir and the opening is sung by Tenebrae with hushed clarity and purity. The climaxes, when they come, are fabulous and the high soprano line is again captivating and impressive. The final Bruckner motet on the disc is Tota pulchra es which has a fine tenor solo in dialogue with the choir plus a discreet organ part.

Brahms’s Drei motetten, op. 110 are his last works for a cappella choir and were inspired by the music of Schutz. Ich aber bin elend has a rich, rather busy polyphonic texture with some quite dense chromatic harmonies, yet still the air of the early masters is obvious too. In Ach, arme Welt the choir gives quite a direct performance with clarity to the words and a little sense of drama. Finally Wenn wif in hochesten Noten sein with its interestingly complex and detailed texture. The choir follow this with Brahms’s early Geistliches Lied, Op. 30 which developed out of contrapuntal exercises into something far more intriguing.

The disc finishes with a fine performance of another of Bruckner’s Aequale.

This disc presents an interesting selection of Brahms and Bruckner’s choral music in performances which could hardly be bettered. Some, perhaps, might prefer the music sung with a more upholstered sound, but I rather like the strength and lithe flexibility which Nigel Short and Tenebrae bring to the music.

£2 from the sale of each disc is being donated to MacMillan Cancer Support.

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) - Virga Jesse
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) - Ecce sacerdos
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) - Christus factus est
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) - Locus  iste
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) - Os justi
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) - Ave Maria
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) - Tota pulchra es
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) - Aequale Nos 1 & 2
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)  - Fest- und Gadenkspruche Op.109
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)  - Ave Maria Op.12
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)  - How Lovely are they Dwellings
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)  - Drei motetten Op.110
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)  - Geistliches Lied Op.30
Alexander Mason (organ)
Nigel Short (conductor)

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