Daniel Reuss leads the small Dutch chorus called the Cappella Amsterdam, and their new album Brahms: Choral Works is out this month on Harmonia Mundi. Focusing on Brahms’s later choral works and featuring intimate, crystal-clear recordings of some of the most beautiful music he composed during his long career, the album begins its journey with the first of the Opus 74 Motets, “Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen?” (“Why Is Light Given to the Weary?”). Composed in 1877, it takes inspiration from the baroque but bears the composer’s romantic stamp as well.
Looking at the program, I wondered why it included one piano piece among the choral works, the rather well-known Intermezzo Opus 119 No. 1. Listening in sequence, though, I perceived that it smoothes the transition to Brahms’s later style, exemplified by the next choral pieces, the “Five Songs” of Opus 104. (If there’s a connection beyond the approximate contemporaneity it’s unknown to me.) These songs invest these secular poems, several of them quite gloomy (“Last Happiness,” “Lost Youth,” “In Autumn”) with a hopeful, even optimistic, and straightforward though also quite modern flavor. Here Reuss restrains the chorus’s energy, keeping the focus on the harmonics, not overdoing the passion.
The same goes for the “Three Motets” of Opus 110, the composer’s last completed choral composition. No. 1 displays in just a few minutes Brahms’s stunning ability, honed razor-sharp in his late period, to create a sense both of surprise and inevitability. Nos. 2 and 3 evoke more explicitly the 17th century works of composers like Heinrich Schütz, as do the three Biblical settings of “Fest- und Gedenksprüche” (“Festal and Commemorative Sentences”) Op. 109. Even as Brahms’s style matured, he continued to look back through many generations of progenitors.
Warmer and more song-like are the piano-accompanied “Quartette” pieces from Opus 92 and Opus 112. Even the shadowy Nachtens ends with a gentle, hesitant major chord.
I was familiar with “Schicksalslied” only with orchestral accompaniment, but after I got acclimated to the piano-four-hands version performed here I began to feel it was perfectly right for this modest-sized chorus of 32 voices. Philip Mayers and Angela Gassenhuber apply a balanced mix of richness and delicacy to the arrangement, leaving more space for Brahms’s celestial choral harmonies and directing the ear more firmly that way as well. The result is a thinner and more ghostly but no less beautiful sound.
Altogether I’m very glad to have made the acquaintance of Cappella Amsterdam through this album, as well of some Brahms choral works with which I wasn’t familiar. Appropriate to the chorus’s name, the voices sound as if they were recorded in a spacious chapel and not a recording studio, though there is also an intimate quality to the mix. Listeners need bring no esoteric knowledge of classical music (nor of the traditions that predate it) to enjoy this album, only an appreciation for beauty, which will be amply rewarded.