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Hyperion Records

CDA67559 - Brahms & Rheinberger: Mass
Recording details: July 2005
Westminster Cathedral, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: June 2006
Total duration: 68 minutes 5 seconds

'Baker and his choir do a fine job with these pieces. The conclusion to Schaffe in mir is wonderfully exciting … while the close to Geistliches Leid, a work too easily dismissed as 'just' a church anthem, is gorgoeously ardent. In Warum? Baker does not overlook the dramatic side of the text and turns in a performance that is both technically excellent and exciting. And Rheinberger's Mass, a beautiful work with rich sonorities, has a fine musical sensitivity and flow' (American Record Guide)

'It is hard to imagine finer singing of these sacred scores from Brahms and Rheinberger than that from the Westminster Cathedral Choir. The Cathedral choristers display a remarkable technical prowess and refinement. From the riveting Kyrie of the Missa Canonica to the symphonic conclusion of the Agnus Dei of the Mass for double choir, Martin Baker directs winning performances, that are marvellously fresh and well-paced. In the exceptional ecclesiastical acoustic of Westminster Cathedral the male choir’s timbre is rich and immediate, with a robust edge that seems ideal for these compelling scores. The highlight for me is the direct and vital quality to the Westminster choir’s singing in Rheinberger’s magnificent Mass. The contribution from organist Matthew Martin is first rate, providing immediacy, without ever being obtrusive. These are superbly performed and recorded sacred works that lovers of choral music will surely relish' (MusicWeb International)

Brahms & Rheinberger: Mass
Kyrie  [3'50] GreekEnglish
Kyrie  [3'18] GreekEnglish
Gloria  [3'14] LatinEnglish
Credo  [6'13] LatinEnglish

Brahms’s Missa canonica is something of a rarity: composed around 1856, the work lay unperformed until 1983 despite being regarded highly enough by its composer for him to have re-used some of its material in the popular motet Warum ist das Licht gegeben?. The absence of both Gloria and Credo settings (these texts being too long to be easily suited to the form of a canon) probably explains the neglect, yet the four movements of this work show all the hallmarks of Brahms’s compositional mastery and deft handling of choral effect that are well known from his many motets, six of which, including the sublime Op 30 Geistliches Lied, are also recorded here.

Concluding this new disc from Westminster Cathedral is the extraordinary double-choir Mass in E flat by Joseph Rheinberger, Leichtenstein’s most famous organ prodigy. This is music born of the polychoral Venitian tradition of Gabrieli and Monteverdi, nurtured on the harmonic milk of Bach and Mendelssohn, and finally offered up to the world as a miniature choral symphony that is uniquely Rheinberger’s.

The Choir of Westminster Cathedral, under Master of Music Martin Baker, takes on the challenges presented by these varied works with panache to create a disc that is sure to appeal.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The 1850s was a turbulent decade for Brahms—it was the decade during which he left his teenage years behind and began to establish a reputation as one of the foremost composers of his generation. Brahms considered himself a progressive composer, yet he could not embrace the recent work of Liszt, for instance, whose music horrified him. In the summer of 1853 Brahms met the violinist Joseph Joachim, and three months later introduced himself to Robert and Clara Schumann. As a result of these encounters, Joachim became a lifelong promoter of Brahms’s music and Schumann was quickly convinced that the young Brahms was already writing great music. By the end of 1853—with the help of letters of reference from Schumann—Brahms had secured the publication of four compositions for piano and two sets of songs. In the following spring Schumann suffered the nervous breakdown from which he would never recover; Brahms supported Clara through this difficult period of her life and, famously, developed passionate feelings for her. After Schumann’s death in 1856, and with Brahms’s love for Clara apparently unrequited, Brahms and Clara parted company. Even a year before the cessation of their close friendship, Brahms had told Clara that he felt that he no longer knew how to compose music freely. But having applied himself with renewed vigour to the study of counterpoint, and after taking technical advice from Joachim, Brahms felt able to resume composition in earnest. The works which immediately followed this attack of writers’ block were a canonic Mass, the motet Op 29 No 2, and Geistliches Lied.

The Missa canonica, although mainly composed in 1856 (on the back of swapping polyphonic exercises with Joachim), was not published until a century later; moreover, the Mass was not performed until 1983. The piece was written as a technical exercise for Brahms’s own musical health, although that does not detract from its considerable artistic merit. The Missa canonica does not include settings of the Gloria and Credo (these texts are longer and more dramatic than those of the other movements of the Ordinary of the Mass and are consequently less appropriate vehicles for the working out of the purely abstract form of canon). The short Mass setting that remains is a testament to Brahms’s compositional craft, his deft handling of voices in combination, and his enormous respect for the polyphonic masterpieces written by the great contrapuntalists of the late Renaissance and the High Baroque. In 1857 Brahms replaced the Kyrie with a new one and set about trying to secure a performance of the Mass. However, even though Julius Grimm—a choirmaster in Göttingen—showed interest, Grimm could not secure a performance. Brahms put the manuscript away and concentrated on writing other music: consequently the Missa canonica lay undisturbed until it was rediscovered in the mid-twentieth century. The only indication that Brahms himself never completely forgot about his canonic Mass comes in the form of a self-quotation in the middle movements of the motet Op 74 No 1.

The two unaccompanied motets of opus 29 were composed in the reverse order to that in which they appear in the list of Brahms’s works. Es ist das Heil uns kommen her (Op 29 No 1) was written in 1860 and begins the setting of its sixteenth-century text with a four-voice chorale. The chorale is followed by a five-voice fugal chorale-motet with the seven phrases of the chorale melody stated in the baritone part. Schaffe in mir, Gott (Op 29 No 2) was begun in 1856 and was described by Brahms as ‘a canon from Psalm 51’ (it sets verses 12 to 14). The opening five-voice section has the uppermost (soprano) voice stating a short melody twice while the lowest voice (second bass) carries the same theme at half speed (per augmentationem—in augmentation). The section which follows is a four-voice fugue (stretto, inversion and chromaticism abound) and the fugue finishes with a three-voice coda which leads into an antiphonal third section for six voices. The antiphony is between lower and upper voices—each time the lowest voice is in canon at the interval of a seventh with the highest voice (second bass following tenor in the lower-voice sections and second alto following soprano in the upper-voice sections). The fourth and final fugato section begins with a four-voice exposition and ends with an animated five-voice stretto.

The Op 30 Geistliches Lied is one of Brahms’s most sublime creations and the composer’s earliest accompanied choral work. Dating from the same year as the Missa canonica and Op 29 No 2 (when Brahms was twenty-three years old) this ‘Sacred Song’ shows Brahms’s enviable ability to conceal an impressive contrapuntal feat within a beautiful artistic creation. The free, undulating organ part supports a double canon across the four voices (the tenor follows the soprano, and separately the bass follows the alto—in both cases at a distance of one bar at the interval of a ninth). The first and third sections form the columns of a musical arch in that they state the same music (to different verses of the early-seventeenth-century poem). The ‘Amen’ coda which ends the piece is an ecstatic double canon (alto following bass at a distance of two bars at the interval of a ninth, and the tenor trailing soprano by a bar at the interval of a seventh).

The Ave Maria Op 12 dates (in spite of its early opus number) from 1858, two years after Geistliches Lied. Originally scored for four upper voices and organ, the accompaniment was later reworked for strings, double woodwind, and a pair of French horns. The influence of Mendelssohn’s music is clear in the Ave Maria, and Brahms’s recent hands-on experience of conducting a choral society in Detmold is apparent. In particular, Brahms developed a special fondness for the transparent sound of women’s voices, and the following year he founded a women’s choir in Hamburg which gave the first performance of the Ave Maria, on 2 December 1859. The Ave Maria alternates between the paired soprano voices and paired alto voices until the final bars when all four voices plead together for the Blessed Virgin Mary’s intercession.

The composition of the two unaccompanied motets of opus 74 (like the opus 29 motets) is at variance with their numbering. Warum ist das Licht gegeben? (Op 74 No 1) was completed in 1877—a dozen years after its partner—although it does borrow material from the Missa canonica of over two decades before, which in that sense makes it the earlier piece. Warum? is made up of four movements, the first of which begins with a fugal exposition introduced by two statements of the opening word (with its arresting tonic–subdominant and dominant–tonic cadences). This strong cadential statement reappears after the exposition and leads to an imitative section; this is followed by a homophonic section which paves the way for a third cadential statement of the word ‘Warum?’. At this point—two thirds of the way through the movement—Brahms effects a Renaissance-style sesquialtera tempo change and adapts his fugue subject so that it metamorphoses from an angular four-square motif into a light triple-time figure. The movement ends with a fourth cadential statement of the opening word.

The second movement takes the music of the four-voice Benedictus from the Missa canonica and expands it to a six-voice texture in the middle of this short movement. The third movement is in two sections, again linked by a sesquialtera tempo relationship. The first section harmonizes a chorale-like melody in the soprano line with beautifully flowing counterpoint culminating in a nostalgic cadential suspension whose Renaissance roots are palpable. The second section is joined seamlessly to a recapitulation of the second movement material. The final movement is a chorale which—though Bachian to the core—gradually slips away into a peculiarly Romantic sleep.

O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf (Op 74 No 2) is a traditional chorale-motet which couches the melody of the chorale in increasingly dense textures stanza by stanza. Brahms was clearly proud (and rightly so) of his achievement in this motet, so much so that he sent the piece to Clara Schumann, presumably for her approval. Clara admitted that Brahms had composed with great contrapuntal skill, but damningly she reported that she could not ‘find such a chaos of harmonies, one on top of the other, beautiful’. One wonders whether Clara might have said the same about some of the similarly texturally dense works of Palestrina or Bach. The first stanza of O Heiland places the chorale melody in the soprano line while the other voices weave an imitative bed beneath it. The second stanza sees the accompanying voices imitate the melody in diminution and half way through the tenor adopts an inverted form of the melody. The tenor assumes a dominant position in the third stanza where it carries the cantus firmus amidst athletic accompaniment from the outer voices. The fourth stanza is the densest of all, its chromaticism underpinned by an elaborated version of the cantus firmus in the bass. The last movement adapts the chorale melody to form an inversion canon between soprano and bass until the appearance of the ‘Amen’ where Brahms crowns this majestic contrapuntal achievement with a double inversion canon which pairs soprano with bass and alto with tenor.

Like Brahms, Rheinberger found it impossible to embrace many of the mid-nineteenth century’s newer developments in music. In particular, Rheinberger disliked the music of Wagner and the New German School. Rheinberger was born in Liechtenstein and had begun to compose at the age of seven; he moved to Munich at the age of twelve and by the time he was twenty he had written over one hundred pieces, all of which he subsequently suppressed. Rheinberger’s posthumous reputation is based largely on his superlative ability as a teacher of composition and as the composer of twenty organ sonatas.

Apart from the organ sonatas, Rheinberger’s most famous work is the Mass for double choir in E flat, Op 109, written in 1878 and dedicated to Pope Leo XIII. Rheinberger’s Mass was written in the months immediately following his rejection of the ideals of the Cecilian movement—a conservative movement which set out to reform Roman Catholic music-making in the nineteenth century. Cecilians attempted to place church music firmly within the liturgy by deliberately suppressing musical individuality in favour of clear declamation of the text and a rejection of all artistic gestures associated with the Enlightenment. Rheinberger’s double-choir Mass—though undeniably dependent on earlier models—exhibits the composer’s new-found freedom and flexibility when writing sacred music.

Right from the opening bars, the antiphonal writing harks back to the late-Renaissance splendour of Venice’s cori spezzati (spaced choirs) tradition, and the spectres of Bach and Mendelssohn are never far away. However, this music belongs to Rheinberger and shows to great effect his gloriously unpredictable powers of invention. At the heart of the Mass are the concise and largely syllabic settings of the long Gloria and Credo texts. Of note are a few moments of brazen word painting (as outlawed by the Cecilian movement) at the words ‘et incarnatus est’, ‘descendit’ and ‘ascendit’ in the Credo. The expansive Kyrie precedes these central movements, and the Credo is followed by an ethereal Sanctus, a gently dancing Benedictus, and an Agnus Dei whose carefully notated dynamic contrasts and elliptical modulations lead into an extended ‘dona nobis pacem’ section whose instrumentally conceived textures create a symphonic conclusion to this remarkable piece.

Jeremy Summerly © 2006

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