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Hyperion Records

CDA67775 - Brahms: Zigeunerlieder
Martyre chrétienne by Hippolyte Delaroche (1797-1856)
Private Collection / Photo © Bonhams, London / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67775

Recording details: October 2007
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Andrew Mellor
Release date: May 2009
Total duration: 66 minutes 13 seconds

'Sung with sympathy and ardour by this excellent chamber choir, with apt accompaniments by Christopher Glynn' (Gramophone)

'This is definitely a crack chamber-sized choir: the sound is perennially fresh, even youthful … intonation, ensemble, articulation are all flawless … I have much enjoyed Consortium's Brahms, especially for the sheer quality of the singing. They are particularly good at sustaining tone in pianissimo, and they are always rhythmically alive, which is vital in this repertoire' (International Record Review)

'A professional ensemble that seems to be eking out a niche for itself … Consortium makes some very beautiful sounds' (Fanfare, USA)

'Elegant, refined music-making' (Audiophile Audition, USA)

'There is little doubt that this is high-class choral singing: refined, sweet-toned, impeccably tuned, with subtly nuanced dynamics … the performances are consistently of the highest quality and when Brahms is at his reflective and melancholy best, so are Consortium' (Musical Criticism.com)

Zigeunerlieder

This charming disc presents a comprehensive selection of Brahms’s secular choral music. Through his professional activities, Brahms had a continuous interest in producing music for choirs, as well as profound insight into their capabilities. His impressive output of a cappella sacred choruses and motets makes learned and creative reference to such Baroque masters as Gabrieli, Schütz and Bach. Yet Brahms was equally adept in the traditions of the unaccompanied Romantic choral song, the Chorlied, following the lead of Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann, and adapting the form to his own characteristic ends. He also wrote a large number of vocal duets and quartets with piano accompaniment, including the popular Zigeunerlieder, which are testimony to his extraordinary fascination for gypsy music and its fertilizing effect on his style.

Selections from these secular forms are performed by the professional chamber choir Consortium, conducted by Andrew-John Smith, who will be familiar to Hyperion listeners from his acclaimed recording of Saint-Säens’ organ works.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
As a teenager, Johannes Brahms conducted a male-voice choir at Winsen an der Lühe near Hamburg; in his twenties he directed the Court choral society of the little principality of Detmold, and founded and conducted a ladies’ choir in Hamburg. In the 1860s he was musical director of the choir of the Vienna Singakademie, and he continued to work with ad hoc choruses until late in life. Thus he had a continuous interest in producing music for choirs, as well as profound insight into their capabilities. His impressive output of a cappella sacred choruses and motets makes learned and creative reference to such Baroque masters as Gabrieli, Schütz and Bach. Yet Brahms was equally adept in the traditions of the unaccompanied Romantic choral song, the Chorlied, following the example of Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann and adapting the form to his own characteristic ends. And he wrote a large number of vocal duets and quartets with piano accompaniment: the most famous of the quartets are of course the celebrated Liebeslieder-Walzer, but there are many others.

Three such make up the set of Drei Quartette Op 64, which Brahms published in 1874, though the first of them, An die Heimat, probably dates from about 1862. This song is very elaborately laid out: Brahms draws a remarkable, motet-like range of colour from the four voices in harmony, treating them like a tiny chorus with canonic imitations, occasional solos and little a cappella passages; while to Sternau’s text, a conventional praise of the poet’s (unspecified) homeland, he brings a depth of feeling entirely understandable if—as seems likely—the piece was composed during Brahms’s first winter in Vienna, far away from Hamburg. There follows a setting of Friedrich Schiller’s Der Abend, a late poem full of Classical metaphor which Brahms ingeniously touches into life with a male/female dialogue for Apollo and Thetis and a haunting piano accompaniment mimicking the step of the sun-god’s horses; there is a moment of pure magic as the horses stop (the piano falls silent) and drink cooling draughts from the sea in long female-voice phrases. Op 64 concludes with a translation of a Turkish folk-poem made by G F Daumer, the poet of the Liebeslieder-Walzer, whose copious output of both original verse and translations from many languages Brahms often recurred to when choosing texts for setting. Fragen is a set of questions put to a lover (the tenor) by the other three parts, massed as a vocal trio. It develops into a tightly dovetailed dialogue, carried out with a sensitive mingling of humour and pathos.

One of Brahms’s last sets of quartets with piano is the eleven Zigeunerlieder Op 103, composed in 1887. These ‘gypsy songs’ skilfully and shrewdly combine the appeal of his two most popular and successfully marketed works, the Hungarian Dances and the Liebeslieder-Walzer. Like the latter, though on a slightly more elaborate scale, they form a sequence of dance-songs for vocal quartet; but now in the rhythms and exotic harmonic shading of the former. Brahms, who at this stage in his life had no pressing financial needs, seems to have written them for sheer enjoyment, and they are further testimony to the extraordinary fascination and fertilizing effect of gypsy music on his style. The texts are from a collection of twenty-five Hungarian folksongs, translated by his friend Hugo Conrat for an edition originally published in Budapest with piano accompaniments by Zoltán Nagy. Choosing freely from Conrat’s words, but only intermittently evoking the original tunes, Brahms produced a concentrated song-sequence that rings as resourceful a set of changes on the 2/4 csárdás rhythm as the Liebeslieder had upon waltz-time. The ‘Hungarian’ idiom is otherwise rather diffuse, and some of the songs—notably the beautiful Nos 7 and 8—resemble strophic Lieder with Slavic colouring. The theme of the opening song, He, Zigeuner, greife, returns in varied form as the theme of the last, Rote Abendwolken ziehn, and in No 10 the piano part produces an uncanny imitation of the cimbalom.

Turning now to the a cappella settings in this recital, the Sechs Lieder und Romanzen Op 93a, written in 1883–4, are for four-part SATB choir and concern themselves with a variety of Romantic texts, but in a profoundly economical and formally concentrated musical idiom. There are three ‘folk’ poems, and three by major writers of the Romantic movement. The set begins with Der bucklichte Fiedler, a robust setting of words taken from a Lower-Rhenish folksong, in which four witches engage a hump-backed fiddler to play for their dance on Walpurgis Night (and reward him by magically removing his hump). Brahms knew the original tune well: he had made two choral arrangements of it in the 1860s, and would return to it a final time in his 1894 Volkslieder. But here he provides a tune of his own, in similar rhythm, and a triple-time development of it, for the central witches’ dance, whose Lydian mode and stark bare fifths give the piece an unexpectedly twentieth-century air. No 2, Das Mädchen, sets a Serbian poem translated by Siegfried Kapper, and is possibly the jewel of the entire set. Alternating 3/4 and 4/4 to suggest the seven-beat metres of Serbian folksong, and ravishingly contrasting a solo soprano against a background of mixed-voice harmony, this song represents the antithesis of Brahms’s customary strophic approach, evolving seamlessly by continuous development of a single gentle motif announced at the outset and brightening from an initial B minor to a glowing B major climax. The treatments of another Serbian poem, Der Falke, and of O süßer Mai and Fahr wohl (these are short lyrics by Achim von Arnim and Friedrich Rückert respectively) are perhaps more conventional—but the unfailing beauty and close integration of melody and harmony avoid any sense of routine. The music is clearly deeply felt, even when its sentiments (notably in Fahr wohl, which in 1897 was sung during Brahms’s funeral procession) are unremarkable; and the fluid cross-rhythms, major/minor equivocations and long-drawn-out final cadence of O süßer Mai have a melting beauty remarkable even by Brahms’s standards. After such sweetness the supple and strenuous polyphony of the final setting, a superb canonic treatment of Goethe’s aphorism Beherzigung (‘Reflection’), is all the more striking.

A few years later the mood is already different. In the Fünf Gesänge Op 104, all but one of which were composed in 1888, beauty of sound and relaxed mastery of medium combine with texts of almost uniformly nostalgic import to produce one of Brahms’s most exquisitely despondent works. The poems tell us that no loving heart opens to the poet’s heartfelt whispers; that spring turns to autumn; that youth is fled; that hopes remain unfulfilled; they also link night, and surrender to sleep, with the acceptance of death. At once resigned and ravishing, this set of Brahms partsongs raises these regrets to the status of high art. The first three of them are cast for six-part choir, which Brahms again deploys in male/ female polyphonic exchanges. There is little direct word-painting (an exception is the horn and echo imitations in the second of the two Rückert settings called Nachtwache that open the set) but instead a very close correlation of mood with musical movement, and a wonderful richness of vocal colour, especially in these glowing Rückert nocturnes and in the highly concentrated Letztes Glück, an autumn-twilight evocation. Contrast to the generally slow pace is found in the fourth number, Verlorene Jugend (‘Lost youth’, a Bohemian poem, set for SATBB), which alternates two tempos, one vigorous and canonic for the heedless days of youth, the other slower and more Romantically homophonic for the piercing sense of their loss.

The culmination of Op 104 (and indeed of Brahms’s secular choral writing) is a powerfully depressive SATB chorus written two years before the others, in 1886: a strophic C minor setting of the achingly nostalgic poem Im Herbst (‘In autumn’), by his friend Klaus Groth. Brahms treats it with great chromatic intensification of the harmony. The second verse duplicates the music of the first, but the third transfigures it into an equally chromatic C major, recasting the harmony to match the miasmal exaltation of Groth’s last lines. (In fact the partsong was originally composed a third lower, in A, with an even darker effect.) In this notable opus Brahms shows himself eloquently unreconciled to the fact of growing old.

Not all Brahms’s works were published in his lifetime. Since his death, a modest amount of material that had been lost while he was still living or which he had not bothered to publish has come to light; the process still goes on. Several of these works are choral, ranging from tiny canons to the unfinished but substantial Mass from the late 1850s, the so-called Missa canonica (recorded on Hyperion CDA67559), which was not published until 1984. Midway in importance between these extremes is Dem dunkeln Schoss der heil’gen Erde, a partsong for mixed voices on words from Schiller’s Das Lied von der Glocke. This was first printed in 1927 as part of the Complete Edition of Brahms’s works brought out in Vienna under the editorship of Hans Gál and Eusebius Mandyczewski. Writing in February 1880 to his friend J W von Wasielewski, who had requested music for the unveiling of the Schumann Monument in Bonn, Brahms mentioned that this chorus existed, only to dismiss it as unfit for the occasion. 1880 is only a terminus ante quem, however—the piece probably dates from a good deal earlier, from the late 1860s or early 1870s. The verses are funereal, apt for a burial service, and Brahms’s treatment is appropriately austere, but we do not know whether the piece was occasioned by the death of any particular friend. Its chorale-like main tune and smooth, imitative polyphony lend it the character of a brief motet, rather than a Chorlied.

A note on performance by Andrew-John Smith
It is clear that Brahms’ vocal quartets were originally intended for performance by solo voices. The composer himself performed them in this way with professional friends and colleagues. It is also clear that Brahms conceived of them in terms of the German tradition of Hausmusik in which friends and family would gather round the piano and entertain both themselves and each other. This would necessarily involve a variety of differing forces contingent on the occasion. We know from a letter of October 1874 to his publisher that Brahms considered the Op 64 quartets ‘might on occasion be sung by a small choir’ and it is through such performances that many of these works have principally been known ever since.

Calum MacDonald © 2009

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