BRAHMS: Six Lieder and Romances, Op. 93a; Three Quartets, Op. 64; Five Songs, Op. 104; Gypsy Songs, Op. 103; Dem Dunkel Schoss der Heil’gen Erde, WoO20 – Christopher Glynn, piano (Opp. 64, 103)/Consortium/Andrew-John Smith, conductor – Hyperion CDA67775, 66:33 [Distrib. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Throughout his musical life, Johannes Brahms affiliated himself with vocal groups, having led a male choir early in his career, then becoming director of the Court Choral Society in Detmold, and director of the Vienna Singakademie. His fondness for a cappella sacred choruses had Brahms researching the music of Gabrieli, Schuetz, and J.S. Bach, as well as more contemporary examples in Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Schubert. Brahms conceived that solo voices would realize his vocal quartets, much in the manner of familiar hausmusik accessible to the lay public’s fondness for family and social ensemble. What sets this music apart is the canny selection of German Romantic poets, Schiller, Rueckert, Goethe, Groth, Sternau, Daumer, and Arnim, even a lyric, “Letzes Glueck,” by Max Kalbeck, who became one of the composer’s biographers.
The 1883-84 set of Six Songs and Romances, Op. 93a, sets the tone for the entire disc, the fourteen members of Consortium in constant, vocal polyphony and strophic motion, except for “The Girl.” A touch of the Brahms Volkslieder informs the three folk poems, but a song like The Falcon achieves a truly aerial effect, in the manner of William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl” or Gerard Manly Hopkins’ “The Windhover.” Some consider the second song, “Das Maedchen,” with words by Kapper, in B Minor that evolves to a triumphant B Major, as the jewel of the set. The last song, Goethe’s “Reflection,” is set as a canon urging self-reliance and moral courage in the face of adversity.
The piano accompanies the Three Quartets, Op. 64 (1874); and the first of the set, “An die Heimat,” enjoys a motet’s harmonic color and blending of styles, including a cappella passages and soaring flights from the four sopranos celebration of the unnamed homeland of Sternau, protector of one’s spirit. Schiller’s dialogue of Apollo and Thetis comprises “Der Abend,” the piano imitating the steps of the horses which draw the sun’s chariot. Cool waters and fragrant night mark the gentle throes of divinities at love. “Fragen” exploits the typical conceits of love and its hellfire that burns an anguish unto death. The tenor voices pose the painful questions, and the other voices provide answers whose only consolation belongs to Romeo and Juliet.
The Five Songs of 1888 open with a six-part setting of Rueckert’s Night-Watch I and II, a cappella laments whose sound definitely carries an olden-style sonority of Gesualdo or Palestrina. Last Happiness by Kalbeck invokes an autumn sensibility, the joys of life having settled into sunset. The setting for Wenzig’s Lost Youth proves more animated, alternately vigorous and canonic, nostalgia for a hectic time of irresponsibility. ‘Im Herbst,” another autumn poem by Groth, conveys in expansive C Minor a farewell-to-life sentiment we find in Richard Strauss and Mahler. Eventually, the stately, modal harmonies move to C Major, depicting a “rapturous outpouring of the heart.” A happier set of songs comes from the 1887 Eleven Gypsy Songs, Op. 103 with piano, which combine Hungarian Dance impulses with the breezy, part-writing of the Love-Song Waltzes sets, Opp. 52 and 65. Hugo Conrat had translated a set of twenty-five Hungarian folksongs for Brahms, and the sheer pleasure of part-song ensemble consumed the composer. The use of 2/4 metrics saturates the lyrics of love, life, nature, and the foibles of human vanity. The czardas and the waltz intertwine, as though Brahms wants for these infectious, vibrant dances what Chopin achieved in his mazurkas. In the penultimate song, The Moon Veils Her Face, the keyboard part imitates the cimbalom. A lovely song, No. 8, “Horst, der Wind klagt” caught my ear, its sentiment close to “Parting is such sweet sorrow” from the most immortal of bards.
The lone wolf on this disc is the motet In the Sacred Earth’s Dark Womb, published in 1927, but written in the early 1870s for a funereal occasion. A polyphonic chorale, the piece emerged when Hans Gal and Eusebius Mandyczewski brought out the Complete Brahms Edition. Elegant, refined music-making of a kind that held a special place in the Brahms oeuvre.
— Gary Lemco