If only this were a better disc! The choice of repertoire is so wonderfully apt: some of Brahms' best choral music is here, including his hardly recorded Missa canonica coupled with a Mass in E flat major by Brahms' near-contemporary Joseph Rheinberger. It could have been a wonderful addition to any collection of nineteenth century choral works. But no matter how fine the quality of the repertoire, it doesn't matter if the performance and recording aren't up to snuff -- and these performances and this recording just aren't up to snuff.
It's not that Martin Baker and the Choir of Westminster Cathedral accompanied by organist Matthew Martin aren't sincere. Every phrase from Brahms' Ave Maria to Rheinberger's Agnus Dei sounds like it comes directly from the heart. And it's not that they're not enthusiastic. They never seem to be giving any less than their all -- even in works that would do better with less enthusiasm. But Baker and the Choir just aren't up to the repertoire. The boy sopranos no doubt mean well, but they can't really handle the lines above the staff. The men are surely doing their best but they can't quite handle lines above or below the staff. Baker may be a skillful conductor in other repertoire, but here his textures are so thick that the middle lines are often all but opaque and his attacks and releases are so sloppy that the tempos are routinely heavy and sluggish. Above and beyond that, Baker and the Choir seem out of their depth with the emotional and spiritual content of the music. To take only the most obvious example, they seem to have little understanding of the meaning of the despairing text from the Book of Job that opens Brahms' greatest a cappella choral work Warum ist das Licht gegeben (Why is light given). And on top of that, Hyperion's recording is uncharacteristically dim and unfocused with far too much echo. Those who already know and love Brahms' choral works will be disappointed. Those who don't already know and love Brahms' choral works are directed toward Matthew Best and the Corydon Singers' superb recordings of the works, also on Hyperion. Their recording of Warum ist das Licht gegeben will have you repenting in ashes and dust before the music's over.