Recordings > Choral and Song

BRAHMS: "Choral Music"

spacer Alto Rhapsody, Ave Maria, Nänie, Begräbnisgesang, Schicksalslied, Gesang der Parzen. With Wolak; Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Wit. Notes, texts and translations. Naxos 8.572694

Recordings Brahms Choral cover 712

No one should be put off by the drab, generic title of this release — "Brahms Choral Music" — which conceals a trove with as much musical-dramatic weight as many an opera. While the Warsaw forces perform these treasures with distinction, the real news is made by a single voice, that of Ewa Wolak, soloist in the Brahms Alto Rhapsody. 

This seems to be that natural wonder, the true contralto, with wine-dark coloring and a cavernous lower range. The resonance continues up the scale in a rich blend with lots of undertone, the ideal sound for this work's asperities and broad, hard-won lyricism. Wolak's timbre has elemental expressive force, both in the steep, sudden register shifts of the lament over "Menschenhass" (hatred of humankind) and then in a compelling legato for the prayerful plea for comfort.

The Rhapsody, a setting of a Goethe poem about a tortured outcast, has one foot so firmly planted in Northern European Protestant pessimism that conductors often slight its contrasting elements, including the more hopeful conclusion. There is a tendency to sacrifice momentum and variety to prevailing gloom, which usually leads to a leaden pace. (Even Christa Ludwig is a bit lachrymose, on her recording with the ruminative Otto Klemperer. The notable exception on disc would be Janet Baker's virtuoso performance with John Barbirolli, which nearly goes to the opposite extreme in its subtle variations and fleet tempos.) Conductor Antoni Wit strikes a good balance between the work's two major moods, though missing some opportunities to heighten occasional details and shadings.

In one imaginative touch that concludes the first third of the work, Wolak performs an expert messa di voce on a sustained middle G, actually marked "pp," and thereby gives memorable force to the verb "verschlingt" ("swallows," in the line "the wasteland swallows him up"). This seems to be the distinction that proves the rule; elsewhere the conductor eschews dynamic variety of this stamp, as well as the use of rubato that would add interest. Still, this is a strong performance, thanks to the brilliant alto soloist, concentrated male chorus and a fundamental rightness in the big picture.

Another striking work, the Begräbnisgesang (Funeral Song), typifies the younger Brahms's striking originality and economy. The Warsaw forces, led by Wit, do it honor, with haunting timbres in the no-strings instrumental sections and strongly varied moods, but unfortunately that goes only so far. Any admirer of this curious mini-drama (a preview, some have said, of the great Deutsches Requiem) surely knows the version recorded recently by John Eliot Gardiner. His contrarian performance, taken at startling, transformative speed and with such original coloring and accents, spoils the palette for a more traditional approach, even the solid one heard here.

The Schicksalslied (Song of Fate) works the same somber vein, in an extended contrast (words by Friedrich Hölderlin) between the "soft ground" and "divine breezes" of heavenly spirits and humans' tormented impermanence, "like water thrown from cliff to cliff." Symphonic complexity and apt dramatic touches — harsh staccatos evoking the "cliff" imagery — make this a fine performance, offering full rein to the transparent textures of the women's voices.

An early Ave Maria strikes a lighter tone, but the program concludes with another weighty Goethe-inspired number, Der Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates), a heady serving of mature Brahms. spacer

DAVID J. BAKER

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4