The Bavarian Radio Choir celebrated its 60th anniversary in May 2006. It experienced
a major phase in its artistic development between 1990 and 2005 under its conductor Michael Gläser. A regular guest conductor in this time was Rupert Huber. As of fall 2005, Peter Dijkstra – a true shooting star in the choral music scene and an exceptionally versatile singer and conductor – took over the choir’s direction. This CD is both a retrospective of the ensemble’s recent history as well as a small anthology of the romantic choral lied. The 19th century experienced
a renaissance of secular choral music and the foundation of countless choirs and groups of people who got together to sing for fun. Johannes Brahms, for example, began his professional activities by conducting a women’s choir, and created an extensive oeuvre of choral literature.
Quiet Sounds of the Breast
Choral music went through a phase of profound change during the nineteenth century. Educators imparted knowledge by teaching songs; the middle class – which was in the middle of the emancipation – discovered choral singing as a medium for representation and identification. Vocal music for several voices thus left its ancestral seat in the church and liturgy and took over the salon, concert hall and singer’s festival. German cities established
vocal academies; large – sometimes gigantic!
– choirs of laypersons dedicated themselves
to the performance of sacred oratorios. But even more important for the diffusion of a broad musical culture was the singing of secular
choral music. Vocal groups were founded everywhere, people gathered to make music simply for fun, either in their clubroom, regulars’
table or on outings to the country.
This development went hand in hand with the “rediscovery” of the folksong, in which both poet and musician saw the consummation of the ideal of a long lost simplicity and naturalness. Romantic poets collected old traditional songs, poems and sayings from unknown authors and used them as models for new literature in a popular
style. Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Alte deutsche
Lieder (The Youth‘s Magic Horn. Old German
Songs), by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, published between 1805 and 1808, became one of the most important sources of texts for vocal music in the following decades. But it was not only the folksong, whose unity of text and melody implied singing, that was appropriated
by nineteenth-century composers, but also contemporary lyric poetry. The relationship
between poetry and music became so profound, the solo and choral Lied repertoire so popular, that even today, we know many verses only in connection with a melody. The subjects of such songs are manifold: joyous Minnesang, the reckless hunt, restless wayfaring, idyllic nature
and naive fairy-tale scenes. But above all, we find leise Töne der Brust, quiet sounds of the breast, melancholy and unquenchable longing, loss and pain, the desire for fulfillment in death. And always: nature serves as the backdrop for subjective sensation.
The new choral movement provided composers
with a broad field for their activities. They founded ensembles, led rehearsals and concerts and composed the suitable literature. Friedrich Silcher, for example, who headed an academic “Liedertafel” – i.e. a men’s choral society – left us over 100 choral songs for four-part men’s choir. Another prominent example is Johannes Brahms, who conducted a women’s choir in Hamburg and gladly took the enthusiastic
admiration of 40 ladies into account. But even at that time, critics were suspicious about art whose popularity rested on its proximity to folklore. Their skepticism did not hold composers
back, however, from integrating folksongs into their works in the most diverse manners. The strophic song, simply harmonized for several
voices, was the first step in this process. Das Heimattal (The Home Valley) is a good model of this type of Lied, which hoped to make choral singing accessible to all classes. In his Romanzen
für Frauenstimmen (Romances for Women’s
Voices), Robert Schumann goes one step further. He imitates the folksong by using clearly structured forms, intuitive melodies and folkloristic
sounds; within this well known framework, however, he uses subtle effects – a catchy rhythm, a surprising dissonance – for an artful implementation of the text. Although the well-known melody of the old ballad Es waren zwei Königskinder (There Were Two Royal Children)
is ever-present in Max Reger’s arrangement of the song, it almost becomes unrecognizable in some sections due to extensive chromatic and late-Romantic harmonic alteration. Der Lindenbaum
(The Lime Tree) takes the opposite track: originally an art song in Schubert’s Winterreise, the beloved melody became a folksong par excellence
in a somewhat simpler version, which resulted in its being set many times for choir. The fact that secular choral music could also exist without being anchored in the folksong was demonstrated by Johannes Brahms in one of his late works. With their accomplished feeling
for the choral sound, mastery of counterpoint
and highly concentrated form and setting, the Fünf Gesänge op. 104 (Five Songs) are the pinnacle of Romantic choral lyricism and can easily be compared to late Renaissance madrigals
as well as centuries of the most sublime sacred vocal music.
The varied selection of compositions found on this CD represents a short anthology of the Romantic choral Lied. Recordings of the Bavarian Radio Choir made between 1990 and 2004 also provide a retrospective of the more recent history of the ensemble, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in May 2006. During this time period, the choir was decisively
shaped by Michael Gläser, who was appointed its artistic director in 1989. Rupert Huber is one of the choir’s regular guest conductors,
and is represented here with one of his specialties: choral music by Robert Schumann.
The most recent work in this collection points to the future. It was the first production with Peter Dijkstra, who took over the choir’s artistic direction in 2005.
Translation: Elizabeth Gahbler