Choral Music: Alto Rhapsody & Gesang Der Parzenb
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Brahms' first connection with choral music came in 1857, and his first appointment in Vienna, in 1863, was to conduct the Singakademie. He premiered A German Requiem in the city and wrote widely for choral forces, taking a variety of poetic source material.
The Warsaw Philharmonic Choir's rich sound is extremely well suited to this music, and Maestro Wit's controlled interpretation of Brahm's langsam proves how well these slow tempi can work with a large enough chorus. --John Guarente, ACDA Choral Journal
by Ewa Wolak
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The six works range from early to late in Brahms' career. His style is apparent in them all. The works are serious and somber in character. This music is melodic but it is difficult to perform and requires concentration and repeated listening to appreciate. The performances by Wit and the Orchestra and Chorus are disciplined, controled and carefully rehearsed. This is a necessity for this music. Much as I love it, most of these works do not work well for amateur music-making. They also are not suitable for casual listening.
The most famous work on this CD, and the only one which uses is a soloist, is the Alto Rhapsody, opus 53, composed in 1869 and possibly autobiographical as Brahms was reflecting on a failed romance. There are many fabled recordings of this work, but I found contralto Ewa Wolak's performance here worthy and deeply moving. The text is three stanzas of a poem by Goethe, and Brahms' music works differently for each stanza. It moves from recitive to a passionate aria with long leaps in the vocal line to a concluding consolatory stanza with the soloist accompanied by a male chorus. Tempos vary substantially in performances of the Alto Rhapsody, and the reading here at 14:51 is on the slow side of the spectrum.
Of the purely choral works, Nanie, opus 82 is one of the most beautiful and least often performed due to its difficulty. Composed in 1881, Brahms set a poem by Schiller which celebrates the evanescent character of beauty. Brahms wrote the work for the death of a friend, the painter Anslem Feurerbach, one of whose works is on the CD cover. It is a work of almost unearthly beauty, peace and serenity in which music and text closely reinforce each other.
Written one year after Nanie, the Song of Fate, opus 89, is of an entirely different character. Setting a poem of Goethe's, this is a short, stormy jagged work which deals with the passing of human life by emphsizing its capricious, chancy and seemingly arbitrary character.
The Song of Destiny (Fate), opus 54, composed in 1871 to a poem by Holderlin also offers an apparently pessimistic view of human destiny. This is a heavily orchestrated work and as do many of the pieces included here makes great use of the tympani. The work begins quietly but reaches a loud and repeated anguished climax on a large chord in its middle section before fading away in resignation. This is a difficult piece and ambiguous in its portrayal of the human condition.
The remaining two works on the CD are early compositions and rather more lyrical and accessible than their companions. Brahms short and lilting setting of the Ave Maria, opus 12, dates from 1859. In that year, Brahms also composed his Funeral Hymnn, opus 13 to commemorate the death of Robert Schumann, This is a march-like piece, scored for lower winds without strings that was composed to be performed at gravesite. The work has the archaic feel of early music.
Keith Anderson wrote the liner notes for the CD and prepared the English translations of the texts. It has become a welcome rarity to see texts and translations. This CD is an excellent and welcome reading of Brahms' choral masterworks.
Total Time: 69:54