Richard STRAUSS (1864 – 1949)
Deutsche Motette Op.62 (1913) [19:03]
Traumlicht Op.123 No.2 (1935) [5:12]
Zwei Gesänge Op.34 (1897) [23:13]
Jane Archibald (soprano); Dagmar Pecková (alto); Eric Soklossa (tenor); Robert Gleadow (bass-baritone); Latvian Radio Choir; Accentus/Laurence Equilbey
rec. Église Notre-Dame du Liban, Paris, France, June 2009
NAÏVE V 5194 [47:30]
I didn’t think there were many major works by Richard Strauss written during some of his most productive years that I had not heard but this is one of them. The Deutsche Motette Op.62 of 1913 is a terrifyingly complex twenty part setting of a Friedrich Rückert poem. Lasting nearly nineteen minutes of hugely taxing unaccompanied writing - spanning a full four octave compass - the main reason for its relative neglect is that only the very finest and bravest choruses can tackle it. Well, the group assembled here by conductor Laurence Equilbey comprising her own Accentus choir from France and the Latvian Radio Choir are both. Combined, this produces an ensemble of some 64 professional singers and the resulting wall of sound is both lush and thrilling. As one might expect of Strauss in this period the music is highly chromatic with sudden side-shifts onto the most radiant and beautiful of chords. Whether it is due to the nationality of the choirs or the complexity of the word-setting I found it all but impossible to follow the text although so sensuous is the music that one is swept away by it. Solo parts are taken from within the choir and whilst they are well sung I could imagine it even better done. The church recording gives a warm bloom to the voices but at the cost of some inner detail. Even with a score - which I did not have - it would be very hard to follow all of the part writing. I was expecting the presence of the Latvian choir to give that wonderful sepulchral dark tone to the lower parts. Whilst the sound is superbly focused and secure it does not have that tone. My guess is that this is the product of a musical choice made by Equilbey. My own personal preference is for a vocal balance that supports the bass lines slightly more but that really is a matter of taste.
Of greater concern is that the very first chord of Der Abend is out of tune. Cruelly exposed that it is the sounding octaves of the women’s voices are quite painfully off. I am very surprised that this blemish made it through the recording process without a better take going in the can. This is the first of the Zwei Gesänge Op.34 of 1897. Although without the exultant chromaticism of the Deutsche Motette these are still complex and ecstatic works. By date of composition they sit between Also Sprach Zarathustra Op.30 and Don Quixote Op.36 but they are very different emotionally as well as musically. Der Abend is to a text by Schiller and the narrative follows the sun-god Phoebus as his fiery chariot sinks into the sea and he abandons himself to the arms of Tethys the sea-goddess. As can be seen from that very brief précis this gives Strauss a wide range of opportunity for word-painting from the gently lapping sea, the radiance of the setting sun to the ultimate calm of night. It really is very beautiful. Still complex and demanding – the four main voice parts of the choir are each in turn divided in four – the work benefits from not having that last layer of harmonic fog. The concluding section, a descent into rest, peace and sleep is superb. The second of the Zwei Gesänge is Hymne – another setting of Friedrich Rückert. This poem is based on the passage in Genesis where Jacob laments the loss of his favourite son Joseph sold to the Ishmaelites. Enshrined in the poem is the message of hope “Sorrow no more. Even the longest roads must come to an end”. The semi-chorus Strauss utilises to sing the “sorrow no more” refrain, the liner-notes tell us, was to be some seventy voices strong which implies a massive weight of sound for the full chorus sections. Given that the choir here in total is less than the preferred semi-chorus alone it is clear that there has to be a trade-off between sheer weight of numbers as against detail. I do have a continuing concern in both of these settings that I find it all but impossible to hear the text. However, once again, criticisms are swept away in the romantic flood of Strauss’s inspiration. More overtly dramatic than its companion piece as performed here I found that I enjoyed the Zwei Gesänge more than the Deutsche Motette.
The programme on this really very under-filled disc - given that there is other unaccompanied Strauss available 47 minutes for a full price disc is short measure - is completed by the far simpler in conception and scale Traumlicht Op.123 No.2. This is another Rückert setting and reflects the wider problems Strauss was having at the time of its composition – 1935 – getting his opera Die schweigsame Frau staged due to the perceived ‘jewishness’ of the librettist Stephan Zweig. There is a direct linkage between Strauss’s current experience and the message of the poem – “let not the powers of darkness be victorious over the inner light”. Set for four-part male chorus there is a sober intensity to the appeal as set here that is most moving. The men of the two choirs combine well although I miss that last element of full-throated conviction that I think I would hear from a German or central European Choir. The four listed soloists are mixed into the choral sound so that their lines emerge and return to the main group. This is a good and effective musical choice. I must admit that none of the four stand out either musically or vocally – it is safe and secure singing rather than inspiring which I feel this music has the capacity to be.
As a recording this is good without being excellent. If listened to on headphones you are aware of quite a lot of extraneous sounds be they traffic noise or bumps and creaks within the recording space. I rarely find that kind of thing distracting – ultimately these sounds make the performance live as opposed to sterile. Given the complexity of the part writing – as already mentioned in passing there will always be a trade-off between clarity of texture and dynamic impact. Good though these performances are I have a niggling suspicion that these extraordinary works could be performed with more panache. Not knowing them at all I have no frame of reference but my instinct is that these superbly drilled and polished versions lack that last iota of flair and fantasy.
Nick Barnard
Superbly drilled and polished but lacking that last iota of flair and fantasy. … see Full Review