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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Gesang der Parzen, op.89
Rhapsody, op.53
Rinaldo, op.50
Anna Larsen, contralto, Stig Andersen, tenor
Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Gerd Albrecht
Recorded at Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen, November 8-9th 2001 (Gesang der Parzen), May 10th-13th 2002(Rinaldo) and August 26th 2003 (Rhapsody)
CHANDOS CHAN 10215 [63:21]

The Alto Rhapsody is one of Brahms’ best-known and best-loved short works, and the catalogue contains any number of distinguished readings, from the likes of Baker, Ferrier, and more recently, Van Nes on Decca. Thus any new recording, particularly at full price like this Chandos one, really does need to be exceptionally good to stand up to the competition. Everything here is in place technically and musically; Anna Larsson has a splendidly firm alto voice, the orchestral playing is well disciplined, and the male chorus makes a creditable appearance in the concluding section. Yet the magic is absent, and the work seems lightweight, lacking the emotional intensity and spiritual depth that a great performance can bring.

Gesang der Parzen (‘Song of the Fates’) and Rinaldo are nothing like so well served on disc, partly because they are not on the same artistic level as the Rhapsody; so the opposite problem exists, that of making these works sound, perhaps, better than they in reality are. Again, Albrecht and his forces fail, though perhaps more honourably. The powerful opening of Gesang der Parzen has a ponderous feel, as if Albrecht was having difficulty in getting the orchestra in motion, and there is a certain hesitancy in the playing too. The chorus, however, is excellent, and they do their best to project this brief but rather fine work. There are some great moments, as Brahms experiments with the kind of descending semitonal shifts that the young Vaughan Williams must have found so influential when he came to compose Toward the Unknown Region.

Rinaldo, it has to be said, is among the composer’s less endearing works. It has some fine moments, but is not kind to the tenor soloist. He gets little chance to relax and sing lyrically. I notice that the Penguin Guide takes James King to task for his coarse-toned "Heldentenor" approach in the Abbado recording. Stig Andersen suffers from the same sort of problem, though his tone is far from coarse. He doesn’t succeed in giving the softer sections the intimacy they need, and generally seems to be struggling against the orchestral accompaniment. However, the men of the Danish National Choir are in superb voice, and this means that the final chorus, in which Rinaldo and his knights set sail from the island where he has been ensnared by the charms of Armida, acquires considerable momentum.

A creditable disc, then, rather than an outstanding one, and if you are after these particular pieces, you could certainly do worse.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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