We had a recent thread here about Brahms where a number of posters opined that his symphonies were surpassed by his choral music and/or his chamber music. In fact, I would say that if Brahms had written no other music than his choral works, that alone would be enough to make him a great composer. It ranges from the most serious and dense counterpoint and academic forms to the most exuberant and direct outpourings of emotion (not that these qualities are necessarily mutually exclusive!). What I really like in these works is that Brahms never seems to be over-thinking (perhaps because he's kept on the straight and narrow by the text), a fault which I feel he's sometimes guilty of in his symphonies.
I can't imagine a better introduction to the composer's non-orchestral choral music than this recent BIS SACD (available as a 24/96 download at eClassical and other download sites). First, there's the set of Zigeunerlieder, where the most overflowing joy is tinged by the most exquisite melancholy - I think only Dvorak evokes a similar combination of emotional states. Of course, eight of these songs also exist in a version for solo voice and piano, but the I find the choral version superior: as the booklet notes for this release suggest, despite the touching states of feeling in every one of these songs, you might be surprised to find that one of them "Horch der Wind", is really a miniature choral fugue! And the wonderful piano accompaniments add just the right color to the texture. My wife is so taken with these amazing little miniatures that she only reserves listening to them for special occasions - they're too beautiful and touching for everyday listening!
Also included is a set of unaccompanied choral songs, Op. 104. There's a distilled simplicity to these settings that is very affecting. The last song in the set, "Im Herbst", creates the most comforting (or, as our British friends would say, "heart easing") consolation arising from the autumnal melancholy of the first two verses (Herbst = Autumn), through a change in the final verse from minor to major.
Then there's the great unaccompanied Motet, "Warum is das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen" (Why is the light given to the one in misery) with its opening text from the Book of Job. Its four parts encompass broad questioning chords as outposts amid the speculative, often painful contrapuntal textures, leading to a chorale as fine as any of Bach's. It feels like an exploration various states of consciousness as you journey from section to section in this work. Choral music just doesn't get much better than this.
I remember the earliest recordings I had of these works during the LP era (Rilling on Nonesuch, Jürgens on Telefunken, et al). These were very good performances, although I was never quite sure whether the tiny lapses of intonation I heard were caused by the singers, or by the grooves being off-center from the center hole. (Ah, vinyl!) In any case, I feel that choral singing has improved over the last couple of decades, and there was a very fine series of recordings not too many years ago by the RIAS Chamber Choir on the Harmonia Mundi label, especially in the unaccompanied works. (The piano-accompanied works were compromised for me by the use of a period instrument.) And there have been other excellent recordings too - not just from Germany. (There was also a fine CD by the Prague Philharmonic Choir of the unaccompanied secular music on the Supraphon label.)
However, I think this new recording by The Norwegian Soloists' Choir may be the best yet. They're so flexible and free in their approach (while maintaining the highest standards of intonation and tone quality), that it seems that they can do whatever they want to further their expressive goals. There are all sorts of nuances in these performances that you don't hear in others - just a pochissimo piu mosso here, or a slight hesitation there (or, in the Gypsy Song, "Brauner Bursche fuhrt zum Tanze", an outrageous - i.e., fun outrageous - portamento at the start of the last few measures), and you can't avoid being swept up in the joy of their music making. And the engineering is the best I've heard in these works, with a perfect combination of focus and openness.
Definitely worth taking a chance on!
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Topic - Another 24/96 download from BIS I should have reported on last month - Chris from Lafayette 20:26:37 06/19/12 (0)