“Mass & Motets” = BRAHMS: Missa canonica, WoO18; Motets (2), Op. 29; Motets (2), Op. 74; Motets (3), Op. 110; Fest- und Gedenksprüche, Op. 109; Swedish Radio Choir/ Peter Dijkstra – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 35814, 58:17 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
“Choral Works” = BRAHMS: Warum ist das Licht gegeben? Op. 74 No. 1; Intermezzo in B minor, Op. 119 No. 1; Gesänge (5) for mixed choir, Op. 104; Schicksalslied, Op. 54; Motets (3), Op. 110; Fest- und Gedenksprüche, Op. 109 ; Drei Quartette – Philip Mayers, Angela Gassenhuber (piano)/ Cappella Amsterdam/ Daniel Reuss – Harmonia mundi HMC 902160 (CD), 70:80 ****:
We often think of Brahms as haunted by the past—most often, this refers to Beethoven—whom the composer had no qualms about mentioning in his conversations and correspondence. But Brahms’s idolization of his own musical forebears goes far beyond just Beethoven, as important as that connection is—he also was enthralled with the music of Bach, Gabrieli, Schutz, and Palestrina, just to mention a few. Early in his life he was seen in the Hamburg city library, pouring over scores of the old masters, and his love for them never dissipated.
Curiously though, his instrumental works, unless one pours over some of the more hidden influences, are bereft of any obvious connections with the far past, though of course Bach shows up all the time. But this is not true with his choral music—even as early as the German Requiem we can find all kinds of hints of times past, covered with the unique romantic flavoring that the composer cloaked it in. But throughout his life his choral music, with only a couple of exceptions, reeks of the ancient masters of the past. Most of the time the texts he was setting were of a religious nature, so this might have something to do with it; yet there is also a palpable and resonating spiritual element in the choral music that seems to touch the composer in a way that other music did not. He was not a stranger to the choral art, spending no little time conducting choruses and immersing himself in the form, which was to serve as his grounding in music in general.
We have two albums here that are simply marvelous in conception and execution, each with noted choral conductors leading ensembles that are well-known and superb in their own way. The music is duplicated to a certain extent—Warum, Festi und Gedenkspruche (a secular piece intended as a festive song of praise for national commemorations, in imitation of Schutz), and the amazing Three Motets (a Gabrieli/ Schutz tribute, and the most complex and enthralling of his thirteen motets) are to be found on each disc. But the gorgeous Song of Destiny (Opus 54) is found on the Reuss disc in the version for two pianos, while the Dijkstra recording gives us a radiant performance of the early Missa Cononica (1856-62), a four-movement piece which was only published a hundred years after the composer’s death.
The Harmonia mundi disc is much longer, which is always a plus. And I had to double-check the sound format when first listening because it almost came across as Super Audio—it is not. There is a curious insertion of the Opus 119/1 Intermezzo, and though there are two pianists featured on this disc, nowhere is it listed who is playing it. There is no mention of it in the notes either, so its presence, while not unwelcome, is odd. The singing of the Cappella Amsterdam is radiant. But no less so is the famous Swedish Radio Choir, caught in magnificent multichannel SACD, and no less committed in their readings. I’ve got to have them both.