Cantoris tackles imaginative programme exploring Hungarian influence in Brahms’s music and related musical phenomena


Cantoris, conducted by Bruce Cash with pianist Thomas Nikora

Zoltan Nagy: from 25 Hungarian love songs
Beethoven: Songs – Elegischer Gesang and Meeresstille und GlücklicheFahrt
Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age) – La passagiata and I gondolieri
Brahms: ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen from the German Requiem, Op 45; and Geistliches Lied, Op 30
Brahms: Prelude and Fugue in G minor (organ)
Brahms: Zigeunerlieder,Op 103 (Gypsy Songs)

St John’s church, Willis Street

Wednesday 6 May, 7:30 pm

Some musical programmes cry out to be heard and experienced because the music is famous and/or promises emotional excitement: expect a big audience; others offer little-known music that rings no emotional bells: expect a thin house.
This was a concert of the latter kind.

Yet the theme of this concert was interesting – the exploration of Brahms’s handling of Gypsy or Hungary-influenced music, and the concert reflected intriguingly on its origins and presented other music that might have tapped a comparable vein, perhaps tenuous, such as music touched by nature, with notions of liberty, freedom of the human spirit, some of Beethoven’s that touched the grand aspirations of the Congress of Vienna of 1815; but the connection of some, such as Beethoven’s Elegischer Gesang and the two spiritual items by Brahms was harder to divine.

Bruce Cash, Cantoris’s current music director, talked interestingly about the music and its contexts, especially about Brahms’s personality, the Vienna of his times and his relationships with patrons. To introduce the theme of Hungary he spoke about Brahms’s two important Hungarian musician friends Eduard Reményi and Joseph Joachim, and his lasting affection for Hungarian music. So they began with a couple of real Hungarian songs collected by Zoltan Nagy, difficult to capture idiomatically as they sang a cappella, and then their arrangements by Brahms in his Zigeunerlieder which they sang in its entirety in the second half of the concert, accompanied by pianist Thomas Nikora.

The two songs by Beethoven were from around the time of the post-Napoleonic Congress of Vienna in 1815, when he no doubt shared Europe’s general feeling that Eureope was free to revert to the old forms of more or less absolute monarchy, freed from Napoleon’s imposition of French Imperial hegemony combined with enlightened governmental and administrative reform.

There was no mention of the Mendelssohn overture, Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt, of around 1828 which was probably inspired by the Beethoven cantata. Here, in particular, the problem that tended to affect most of the choir’s performances became clear: the rather too small body of singers that could both lend important support to each other and consequently sing with adequate confidence.

Two Rossini songs from his retirement years in Paris were nicely accompanied though a solo soprano had an unenviable, lonely task.

After the interval and before the Gypsy Songs, Cantoris retreated from the floor to the organ gallery above the sanctuary to sing a couple of Brahms’s religious choral pieces: ‘How lovely are thy dwellings’ from the German Requiem, and the Geistliches Lied (Spiritual Song), Op 30, both sung with appropriate piety. Bruce Cash took the opportunity to talk about Brahms and Hamburg where he was born. He mentioned St Michael’s Lutheran Church where Brahms was christened and which featured in some of his activities during his return to his birth place from 1856 to 1863; I missed what he said about St Michael’s other than that it was where his Frauenchor (women’s choir) often performed.  (In 2013 I spent a delightful week in Hamburg, at the last three parts of Simone Young’s performances of the Ring cycle, exploring all five principal churches including the wonderful St Michael’s, and both the Brahms and Telemann museums in Peterstrasse). Before leaving the organ gallery Cash played Brahms’s youthful Prelude and Fugue in G minor, chosen for its own sake as well as deriving from the same years as the two preceding choral pieces.  

Then came the eleven Gypsy Songs; though they may have derived from the much earlier relationship with the Hungarian violinist Reményi, much of a Hungarian or Gypsy character seemed to have faded from Brahms’s soul by the time of their composition, ten years before his death.  They were written for four voices, no doubt with four trained voices in mind. For an amateur choir, especially one without enough singers able to contribute in any section in a soloistic manner, it was a struggle to create any real Hungarian character or, to be honest, to make of these fairly slender songs anything very interesting. Sadly, their successful interpretation, including an injection of ethnic and stylistic character, colour, rhythmic fun, rubato, commitment, calls for performers with a certain flamboyance and distinguished musical gifts. These qualities showed themselves all too rarely in this performance. 


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