This CD usefully gathers together the four
most significant works in Brahms’s output for chorus and orchestra,
with the obvious exception of Ein deutsches Requiem
will already have noticed the rather niggardly playing time so
let me hasten to assure them that it is only in this respect that
the disc offers short measure: the music and the performances
are of high quality.
The young English conductor, Robin Ticciati, has attracted a great deal of favourable notice in a relatively short space of time. Already installed as chief conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (from the 2009/10 season) he will become First guest conductor of the Bamberger Symphoniker from the 2010/11 season. This, I suspect, is his first recording with the orchestra and in it he reveals himself to be a fine Brahmsian.
The Alto Rhapsody
is the best-known piece on the programme and I was very pleased to see the British mezzo, Alice Coote in the solo role. I saw her sing the piece on television a year or two ago at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. Here, freed from the necessity of projecting into such a vast auditorium as the Royal Albert Hall she can sing with the proper intimacy that much of the piece requires. It’s a remarkable work in many ways. The later Gesang der Parzen
has a surprisingly large amount of dissonance in its harmonies but the way is surely paved in the searching music of the Rhapsody
. Ticciati conducts it with maturity and is successful at laying out the stark winter landscape portrayed in the opening pages. Alice Coote sings very well; her vocal production is unforced and her warm, expressive tone gives much pleasure. Throughout the piece her voice is in good focus and I especially admired her poise at the telling phrase “Die Öde verschlingt ihn”. Ticciati accompanies his soloist considerately and his orchestra realises the textures of the music very well. Miss Coote is successful in putting across the introspective side of the piece and then, when the famous heart-easing melody appears - “Ist auf deinem Psalter” – her delivery of it is lovely, with the male voices of the choir in good support.
I came to know Nänie
several years ago through taking part in a series of performances; it’s a very fine piece. It is, as Colin Anderson says in his booklet note, a work that contains “music of rapt contemplation and remarkable loveliness”. Indeed, the oboe melody that’s heard near the start is of a stature comparable with the theme for the same instrument in the slow movement of Brahms’ Violin Concerto. Ticciati leads a splendid performance. The music unfolds with due spaciousness and warmth but without any suspicion of wallowing. The choir is full-toned and well balanced. They produce some fine quiet singing but, when required, there’s ample power without any need to force the tone. It’s a very satisfying performance and to my ears Ticciati seems to get everything just right.
Gesang der Parzen
is, musically, a very different proposition.
This was the composer’s last work for choir and orchestra and
it contains a good deal of turbulent, dark music. The darkness
is emphasised by elements of Brahms’ scoring. He includes parts
for a contrabassoon and a tuba while the choir is divided into
six parts, including two alto parts and two bass parts. The piece
begins quietly and from the outset a marked and appropriate degree
of tension is present. The volume is increased significantly for
the second stanza of the words, which are by Goethe, beginning
“Der fürchte sie doppelt” (“Let he [who is raised up by them]
fear them doubly”) and the choir rise to the occasion with some
exciting singing. The whole piece is concentrated and is tragic
in tone. Ticciati directs his forces with admirable energy. The
spectral end, in which the contrabassoon is a discreet but telling
presence, is well managed.
mixes the sublime and the dramatic. The spacious introduction, in warm E flat major, is one of the most radiant passages of Brahms that I know. In this account the muted violins sing out the main theme most affectingly while the timpani pound quietly underneath. The gentle entry of the choir – led excellently by the altos – sustains the mood of the introduction perfectly. Later, at “Doch uns ist gegeben”, the music plunges abruptly into C minor and Brahms’ music is bitingly dramatic, recalling “Tod, wo ist dein Stachel” in Ein deutsches Requiem.
Finally, Brahms relents and revisits the music of the introduction, but this time in C major. This is balm after the storm and I always think that the prominence of the flute in this reprise emphasises the lightening of the textures and the parting of the storm-clouds. The whole performance of this fine work strikes me as a complete success.
There have been comparable couplings of these four short masterpieces in the past. Claudio Abbado did them all to excellent effect with the Berliner Philharmoniker for DG in the early 1990s (435 791-2) and they were also recorded for Decca by Herbert Blomstedt in 1989, during his time in San Francisco. However, I’m not sure that either set of recordings is currently available. Even if they are, this newcomer offers an excellent alternative. Not only are the performances very good but also the recorded sound is very satisfying – I listened to this hybrid SACD in conventional CD form. My only reservation about the otherwise well-produced booklet is that the English and French translations of Nänie
and of Gesang der Parzen
are not aligned with the German words.
On this occasion I’d urge collectors to overlook the short playing time. These are very fine examples of the art of Brahms and they’ve been well served in these excellent recordings. I hope this is a harbinger of the forthcoming partnership between Robin Ticciati and this distinguished German orchestra.