Monday 1 September 2014

Fine performances of works by Heinrich von Herzogenberg from the Monteverdichor Würzburg and the Thüringen Philharmonie Gotha conducted by Matthias Beckert on a new 2 SACD release from CPO

Heinrich von Herzogenberg (1843-1900) was born in Graz, Austria and studied at the Vienna Conservatorium, thereafter dividing his time between Graz and Vienna. In 1872 he moved to Leipzig where, from 1875 to 1885, he was conductor of the Bach-verein. He was subsequently appointed head of the department of theory and composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, becoming professor in 1886.

Herzogenberg was a lifelong friend of Brahms and, with a colleague, Philipp Spitta, founded the Bach Society. His compositions include choral works, vocal works, orchestral works, chamber works, piano music and organ works.

It is his choral works that feature on a new 2 SACD release on CPO from the Monteverdichor Würzburg  and the Thüringen Philharmonie Gotha  conducted by Matthias Beckert  with soloists Franziska Bobe (soprano) , Barbara Brackelmann (alto) Maximilian Argmann (tenor)  and Jens Hamann (bass)

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The first disc brings us Herzogenberg’s Totenfeier, Op.80 for soloists, choir, orchestra and organ. A cantata using biblical texts and hymn strophes, it was written in 1892 and moves from a condition of despair to an ultimate acceptance. It was written whilst the composer was dealing with his own grief following the death of his wife.

The Introduction and Funeral March with Choir brings a weighty orchestral opening followed by a directness of utterance as the choir sings ‘Man, born of woman, lives only a short time and is very troubled.’ There is often a funereal measured tread, pointed up by timpani, that contrasts with dramatic outbursts An extended orchestral passage, full of drama, leads the music into A Recitative and Aria with bass, Jens Hamann entering in this pleading section, ‘Lord! Why do you stand so far away?’  Hamann weaves the text, delivering finely controlled emotion.

We are immediately led into an Alto solo and Chorale where the lovely voice of boy alto, Jaro Kirchgessner, opens with just organ, before the orchestra and choir enter, slowly and gently lifting the music. The choir and orchestra alternate with alto and organ to terrific effect. Franziska Bobe, arrives, in terrific voice, for the Soprano Solo and Choir, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ soon joined by the choir and orchestra bringing an upbeat joy to the text. When Bobe returns she brings a clear voice, full of light before the chorus and orchestra return who, with soprano and orchestra lead to the end. Bass, Jens Hamann returns heavy with emotion for the Recitative and Aria, ‘When I sought the Lord.’ with the Thuringen Philharnonie Gotha adding fine orchestral drama, passion and weight.

Pizzicato strings quietly open the Solo Quartet section before the quartet of soloists enters with brass, adding light to the texture of this slightly Bachian chorale. The chorus and orchestra gently and smoothly open the Chorus, ‘When the Lord redeems the captives of Zion’ bringing a feeling of comfort to the words. This is a beautifully subdued and mellifluously sung section which, centrally, rises in passion before speeding forward at the words ‘Then our mouths shall be filled with laughter’ before being led back to the opening tempo.  

There is an attractive instrumental opening to the Soprano Aria, ‘How lovely are your dwelling places’ before the soprano enters in this distinctive and lovely setting where the soloist and instruments weave around each other with Herzogenberg’s orchestration so transparent and light. This lovely section, a kind of pastoral section, is beautifully sung.

Bass, Jens Hamann returns for the Bass Solo and Concluding Chorale with an impassioned ‘The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away’ before the choir and orchestra enter to bring a resolute conclusion. The weighty orchestra of the opening returns but this time to affirm ‘The King’s Glory shines’ –with, again, hints of a Bach chorale.

This is a particularly distinctive and attractive work, well worth getting to know. It is beautifully orchestrated, with Herzogenberg bringing drama and poetry to his distinctive style.

Begräbnisgesang, Op.88 for tenor, male voice choir and wind ensemble was written in 1895 following the death of his good friend Philipp Spitta and sets the composer’s own texts. It is a short work, lasting only around five minutes but delivers much passion and feeling.

The wind ensemble open, followed by tenor, Maximilian Argmann then the male voices of the choir in another distinctive work that for all its debt to Bach is distinctively Herzogenberg’s own style such is the beautiful way he layers the tenor over the choir and brass.

The second disc contains Herzogenberg’s Requiem, Op.72 was written in 1890 and first performed, with the composer conducting, in St. Thomas’ Church, Leipzig – Bach’s old church.

The orchestral opening of Requiem is more symphonic than ecclesiastical. When the Monteverdichor quietly enter, they reinforce just how good a choir they are. There are gentle surges of dynamics, finely controlled, beautifully blended and with a lovely tone right across their range. There is a feeling of controlled tension, pointed up by occasional timpani.

The Dies Irae, the longest section part, opens in a fairly subdued manner with timpani rhythms and a slow building of dynamics. When the music drops back it leads to a quickening of tempo with a kind of scurrying nature. The choir and orchestra provide much drama and tension but there is none of the violence found in other Requiems. At times the choir really soar over the dynamic orchestra. There are occasional vibrant string passages reminiscent of Mozart in his Requiem. Later the male voices lead to a more dramatic section but it is, nevertheless, more an intense drama than an out and out ‘Day of Wrath.’ This is a pleading Dies Irae not a frightening premonition. The end is hushed.

It is lovely the way Herzogenberg divides female and male voices in Offertorium. There is a beautiful flow in this glorious section and a particularly affecting Hostias, exquisite and distinctive in its writing.

In the Sanctus the orchestra leads the music, rising up, with the choir joining in this joyful section. There are some lovely moments as the music swirls around, full of joy and light, with the orchestra underpinning the choir magnificently.

The Agnus Dei has a quiet, tentative orchestral opening leading to a slow plodding orchestral theme before the male voices of the choir enter just as tentatively. The female voices then enter over the male choir, adding a spiritual feeling. Midway the orchestra raises the dynamics a little but the choir then continue their gentle, rather mystical way.

6The orchestra opens Communio with an upward theme soon joined by the whole choir, flowing beautifully forward with a rich orchestral contribution. There is a particularly lovely section at ‘…for you are merciful’ and a lovely feeling of peace when they sing ‘Grant them eternal rest, O Lord.’

On the evidence of these discs Herzogenberg is a composer worth exploring. I will certainly return to these works again.

The Thüringen Philharmonie Gotha conducted by Matthias Beckert provide fine, taut playing, great dynamics and sensitivity and the Monteverdichor Würzburg prove themselves to be a first rate choir. All of the soloists are excellent as is the recording from Neubaukirche, Würzburg.

There are excellent booklet notes and full Latin, German and English texts.

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