31 Aug 2006

BRAHMS: Missa Canonica

The program for this recent recording from the choir of Westminster Cathedral presents sacred choral works by Brahms and Rheinberger, anchored at one end by Brahms’s youthful Missa Canonica and at the other by Rheinberger’s Mass for Double Choir in E-flat, Op. 109. with a handful of motets by Brahms in between.

Somewhat problematically, however, neither of the “anchors” seems to have sufficient interest or weight to support the recording as a whole. Brahms’ Missa Canonica consists of only a Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, and derives from the 1850s when Brahms was in his early twenties. The study of counterpoint and the influence of Joseph Joachim helped fortify Brahms for significant aspects of this musical chapter, and the Missa Canonica, a work that lay dormant until the middle of the twentieth century, bears the stamp of his contrapuntal immersion. The Kyrie seems to announce Renaissance ideals that are wed to melodic lines with a compelling Romantic sweep. And the conclusion of the Agnus is quite beautifully constructed. However, too much of this incomplete “Missa” feels like student exercise. We should welcome its modern rediscovery, publication, and recording, but I suspect its interest will lie as much in what it tells us about Brahms as the music itself.

Similarly, Rheinberger’s E-flat Mass will certainly present interesting moments—the halo effect of the “et incarnatus est” in the Creed is effective, as is the “sepultus est” that follows, and the intertwining of the voices of the Agnus Dei is wonderfully engaging—but much of the Mass is economical (the Gloria takes only a little over three minutes) and offers little that will substantially engage the listener.

Fortunately, the Brahms motets are jewels all, including both “Es ist das Heil” and “O Heiland reiss,” works that show Brahms’s affinity for the German motet tradition—they are chorale based and impressively contrapuntal—and his fluency in making that tradition his own. None of the motets are lovelier, however, than the Geistliches Lied, “Lass dich nur nichts nicht dauern.” Richly canonic—it comes from the same period as the canonic mass—it nevertheless veils its canonic richness with wonderfully unfolding lines and a congenially supportive organ accompaniment. The sense of return in leading to the final strophe is nothing short of magical, and the rich chain of suspensions that comprise the final Amen is breathtaking.

The trebles of the Westminster Choir sing with a decidedly “continental” edge to the sound, an often observed aspect of their tradition. Characterized by a bright timbre, the treble sound can indeed be thrilling in some contexts, but in the present recording the line separating brilliance and shrillness is sometimes too narrow, especially at loud volume and in the upper register. By analogy, too, the overall interpretive approach favors a high-energy level that in some instances is engagingly full of verve—the freudige Geist section of “Schaffe in mir” is a good example--but in other instances, the line that separates verve from aggression is also a narrow one, and sometimes misjudged here.

In the final reckoning, the program itself will perhaps leave the listener wanting a bigger serving of more substantial fare, and the choir’s style is at times overly brilliant and energized where warmth and a more graceful line might serve well. There are many beautiful moments, however, and the listener who seeks them out will find reward.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College