When one thinks of Brahms’s position among 19th-century composers, what springs to mind is his role as the staunch conservative, even reactionary, amidst an ever-escalating Romanticism that continued to grow estranged from the Classicism he held dear. This idea is at the very premise of Schoenberg’s notion of “Brahms the progressive,” a play on that most commonly held of Brahmsian tropes: Brahms the composer with one foot deeply entrenched in the ancient past even as the other thoroughly overarched his contemporaries. It is rare indeed that one actually gets the opportunity to experience “Brahms the musical antiquarian,” outside of perhaps some tenuously-linked examples within his own music. But this was exactly what Convivium Musicum afforded a small but greatly-appreciative crowd in the Cambridge Friends Meeting House on Saturday.
The program, Brahms and Early Music examined Brahms’s relationship with music of the pre-Baroque and early Baroque by culling and performing works from the composer’s own library, more specifically those in manuscript form, presumably of great importance since they had been been copied out by hand. This task was met head on by Convivium, who, with their director Michael Barrett at the helm, gave taut and committed readings, illuminating the often thickly contrapuntal textures with the kind of harmonic transparency and rhythmic stability that they require. Although the sharp harmonic focus that characterized the performance at the outset may have flagged at points over the course of the lengthy and demanding program, the group, at all times, projected complete interpretive assurance and a palpable sense of dedication to this music.
The concert began with a six-voice motet by Gabrieli, a fitting inception to this program of Renaissance polyphony given that the works of this transitional composer provide a suitable stepping-stone to a more familiar Baroque idiom. The motet, Beata es virgo, featured thickets of imitative polyphony and polychoral textures, all of which Convivium executed with serene aplomb. Next came a trio of short pieces from the early decades of the Lutheran church, among them Praetorius’s In dulci jubilo, certainly the most well-known work on the program and, lacking the relentless polyphonic activity of many of the other numbers, was able to show off the group’s radiant and full sound in a more homophonic setting.
There followed works by Ingenieri (Monteverdi’s teacher) and Palestrina. These brought with them a high degree of chromaticism, featuring cadences that seemed to evaporate into other and unexpected harmonic realms and requiring Convivium’s full degree of harmonic articulation to come off—and they did. The Ingenieri in particular, called Tenebrae factae sunt, concluded on a full, organ-like chord of uncommon resonance that seemed to fill every corner of the medium-sized church. The Sanctus and Benedictus from Palestrina’s famous Missa Papae Marcelli followed. Here in particular the ensemble’s wonderfully supple and ambient bass shone through, providing a firm bedrock over which the highly exposed and relentlessly overlapping thematic entrances could occur.
More Lutheran music was next, including works by Vetter, Schein, and Bach, whose chorale Es ist genug was given a somewhat atypically quick albeit deeply emotional reading alongside a setting of that same tune by Ahle. Despite its tempo, the otherworldly harmonic atmosphere of this chorale was brought to the fore in Convivium’s performance. The first half of the program concluded on Lassus’s De Profundis, a work employing a cantus firmus in its texture, allowed Barrett to share with the audience an engagingly humorous description of that technique. In fact, his friendly rapport with and frequent addresses to the audience (a word or two prefaced almost every set) helped the performance to seem less like a hermetically sealed procession of musical relics and more like the vital and relevant art that it is.
Highlights from the second half of the performance include several works by Antonio Lotti, one of which, a setting of Vere languores nostros, sung by only the female members of the choir, was likely part of Brahms’s repertoire as director of the women’s choir in Hamburg. Here, a tenor- and bass-heavy work by Clemens non Papa was sung alongside it and provided a smart textural counterbalance. A pair of Crucifixi by Lotti followed, both imposing a different dramatic arc on the well-known text. The first began with a tormented outcry from the full chorus and proceeded to spiral down to a desolate conclusion, while the second, for eight voices, started quietly and consonantly but began to accrue layer upon layer of suspensions into an intense and restless musical fabric.
And, finally, since it was almost inevitable, the program concluded with a work by Brahms himself, the second of the Op. 74 motets, a setting of O Heiland reiss die Himmel auf. It provided the perfect passage from stile antico into fully realized Brahmsian musical vocabulary. Beginning with an intonation of the chorale tune and proceeding in an apparently a self-consciously antiquated style for Brahms, the piece seemed to break open in the middle and yield what must have been the greatest technical challenges that Convivium faced on the program, including highly agile scalar passages, moments of sheer tonal obscurity, cadences completely abandoned, and even some metric dissonance. It was an exalted finale to a rare and wonderful tour through some of the more ancient holdings in Brahms’s library, and, even if the master’s seamless synthesis does not allow for direct and offhand comparison to be drawn between his mature concert works and those works that this program comprised, one certainly left Saturday’s performance with awe at the profound and meaningful relationship that Brahms cultivated with music from the distant past as well as deep gratitude to Convivium Musicum for giving such fine voice to it.