BRAHMS: Motets (Matthew Morley/ Robert Jones/ St. Bride's Church Choir/ Fleet Street) (Naxos: 8.553877)
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Date of birth 7th May 1833. Johannes Brahms came into a musical family, his father, after an impoverished beginning as a street entertainer, was double bass player in the Hamburg orchestra. It was probably from his father that Johannes received his first lessons, and by the age of ten a sharp eyed American tried to sign him up as a child prodigy pianist to tour the States. Five years later he was to give his first major concert, though his interest was now towards composition. Modest success in this field came early in life, yet to earn a living he had to continue as a piano soloist and accompanist, a most productive period being with the great violinist, Joseph Joachim. It was not until he was 44 that he felt able set to work on the first of the four symphonies which were to be the corner-stone of his fame as a composer. The surprising statistic being that he wrote just 14 works for symphony orchestra. Indeed much of his compositional time was spent on a massive catalogue of solo songs and choral works.
Financially secure from his appearances as a piano soloist, he spent most of his latter years composing. He was 64 when he died in Vienna, having long before terminated all interest in his native Hamburg, where he had been thwarted in his desire to become a conductor! It is more than probable that his early death was hastened by the death of Clara Schumann, who had been his close friend during the 40 years since her husband's death.
Brahms was to write choral music throughout his life, the earliest published work being the Ave Maria dating from 1858, a gentle work for female voices with discreet organ accompaniment. The following year he wrote a quite dramatic setting of the 13th Psalm, again for female voices, though with a more important organ role. Though unmistakably from Brahms, his knowledge of Bach is quite apparent. At this stage he had not written for mixed chorus, and it is quite remarkable that after the short Geistliches Lied which includes male voices with organ accompaniment he launched himself into one of the great choral masterpieces, Ein deutsches Requiem. The Lied is a comfortable piece of writing, but, it has to be said, far from inspiring, which makes the Requiem all the more remarkable.
Brahms wrote 13 motets, and in a way they show his commercialism, for they reflect the change in choral writing brought about by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Loewe, rather than an extension of his own style of composition. It followed that generation's fascination with a cappella (unaccompanied) singing, and in a more romantic mode than the strict counterpoint we found in those earlier choral works. Still he was able to show in these works his skill in handling choral groups, and, a fact of which he was particularly proud, in his mastery of all forms of canonic technique. He was also able, at times, to introduce some of the sweeping melodic invention that was to make his symphonic music famous. As the opus numbers would suggest, the motets heard here represent those through his entire period, the earliest dating from around 1860, with the opus 110 being the last in this form, and was completed in 1889. As a mastery of unaccompanied singing, a whole discourse on musical form would be necessary to do justice to these academically perfect scores. It was to reach its zenith in the Fest nd Gedenkspròche, a highly complex work for double chorus in three sections, and one where Brahms continually takes the sopranos on high to create brilliance. They were first performed in Hamburg in 1889, on the important day when Brahms was made a freeman of the city. They had, however, been started three years previous, and were obviously intended as festive hymns for national days of commemoration. The work is somewhat different to that which had gone before, and reflects Brahms knowledge and admiration for the old Venetian motets.
The church of St.Bride is situated in Fleet Street, the heart of London's newspaper world. The present totally professional choir of 12 adult voices was founded in 1958 when the church was reopened after restoration from the damage suffered in the Second World War. It sings at the two services every Sunday, but as it is funded by the press, it also serves as the choir for the many weddings, memorial services and other functions related to that industry. Its members also have a separate life as soloists and members of other major chamber choirs in London. They made their first recording for Naxos with a disc of Bruckner motets which received critical acclaim.
Robert Jones studied organ at Christ Church, Oxford, with Nicholas Danby, and singing with David Johnston. He now enjoys a career in both spheres, notably as a member of the Tallis Scholars. He was appointed Musical Director of St. Bride's in 1988.