Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
The Captive Queen, Op.48 [10.11]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Invocation (1893)* [7.36]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Tageszeiten: Mittagsruhe, Op.76/2 [6.25]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Helgoland (1893) [12.06]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, D714 [10.19]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Landkjenning, Op.33+ [6.40]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Das Liebesmahl der Apostel (1843): closing section [8.58]
Mikhael Stenbaek (tenor)*; Daniel Hellström (baritone):
+ Lund Student Singers
Malmö Opera Orchestra/Alberto Hold-Garrido
rec. Luftkastellet, Malmö, 7-10 June 2011
NAXOS 8.572871 [61.54]
Works for male choir and orchestra are not terribly thick on the ground, but this presents a number of works that deserve to be much better known than they are. The earliest piece here, Schubert’s Goethe setting, is perhaps fairly well established in the repertory, but is more often heard in the versions for choir and piano, or for unaccompanied chorus, than in the version given here for choir and string quintet (two violas, two cellos and double-bass). Most of Schubert’s many pieces for male choir were written for amateur performances with limited or no accompaniment, but this setting and the contemporaneous Nachtgesang im Walde with its four horns show him reaching out beyond the realm of the normal male choirs of his day. The Lund singers are an expert body who sing with great feeling for the idiom. Many male choirs tend to be bottom-heavy in nineteenth century repertory, when the standard arrangement by composers tended to divide the tenors in two while leaving the basses in either unison or octaves; the Lund choir do not fall into the trap of allowing the lower lines to overpower the melody.
The German male choir tradition was exploited by Wagner to its limits in his massive Das Liebesmahl der Apostel, originally written for a very large group of choirs divided antiphonally into several distinct parts. The sleeve notes here inform us that “The work opens with an unaccompanied section, here omitted.” In fact the unaccompanied section constitutes rather more than two-thirds of the whole work, and it is in these passages that Wagner is most imaginative in his use of spatial effects, if more conventional in his use of harmony - it is an early work, after all. To have the final section presented as an isolated torso means that the sense of the Holy Ghost descending on the Apostles is lost, and this is altogether an unfortunate choice of the final track for this CD. And the final section really does need more voices than we are given here.
The same unfortunately must be said of Bruckner’s massive and heroic Helgoland, one of his very last works. The thunderous opening recalls the world of the Te Deum with stentorian brass and plunging string figurations, but here the strings are somewhat underpowered and the work really demands a choir of considerably larger size if it is to make its proper impact. The tenors sound fine in their quieter passages, but need more body in the heavier moments where the brass have an unfortunate tendency to overpower the remainder of the forces. Helgoland has received a number of recordings, of which the most exciting of all - if somewhat rough-edged - was probably the pioneering disc (Pickwick PCD1046) by Wyn Morris - coupled with a properly complete performance of Wagner’s Liebesmahl. Unfortunately this no longer seems to be available. Indeed the only currently listed alternatives are two by Daniel Barenboim, of which his more measured Chicago version (reissued on DG Galleria) is preferable to his very rushed Berlin one which is over two minutes shorter, and a minute shorter than the one under review here. There are currently no listed versions of the Wagner at all. In the past there have been been versions from Coviello COV30408 (2005) and Plasson’s 1997 Dresden version on EMI Classics 55635822; the latter on the point of reissue in The Other Wagner EMI 7055142).
Fortunately the rest of this disc is a considerable improvement, and the works are most interesting too. There seems to have been little tradition of male choir singing in France during the nineteenth century - unlike Britain and Germany - despite the example of Cherubini’s D minor Requiem. Some French works, such as Adam’s Companions in arms, Gounod’s By Babylon’s wave and Laurent de Rille’s Martyrs of the arena, were still popular in male choir circles as late as the 1970s; but they seem to have been almost totally neglected in France itself, where the operatic repertory reigned supreme. Debussy’s Invocation written for one of his attempts at the Prix de Rome therefore comes as somewhat of a surprise. As a student work one would not expect much in the way of Debussian style, but in fact there are hints of somewhat later works such as La demoiselle élue in the writing. It appears only to have ever received one recording - in the version for chorus and piano published after the composer’s death. Although Naxos do not claim as much this would appear to be its first appearance in the original orchestration. Mikael Stenbaek is a superb soloist, his high notes ringing out full-bloodedly without a trace of French reticence. I don’t know if Debussy would have altogether approved, but I like it.
This is also only the second-ever recording of Sibelius’s The captive queen in the version for male choir and orchestra, the first being recorded as part of volume 4 of BIS’s massive ‘Sibelius Edition’ (review). Sibelius wrote a great deal of music for male choir, some of it of the very highest quality such as the tone-poem The origin of fire and the Kullervo symphony; but The captive queen, hardly more familiar in its original version for mixed choir, is also a masterpiece which is not worthy of the neglect in which it has languished.
Perhaps more familiar is the Grieg Landkjenning, first recorded by Per Dreier (LP RHS364 reissued on Unicorn Souvenir series CD UKCD2056), then Ole Ruud (review, review) and later by Neeme Järvi (review) as part of their surveys of Grieg’s choral music, although neither of their recordings appear to be currently available. The only disc listed is part of a miscellaneous recital by the Mormon Tabernacle choir. This is also a work which deserves to be better known than it is, and Daniel Hellström is good in his solo.
Strauss’s Tageszeiten is available in a number of currently available recordings, of which the best is Plasson’s reading as part of a collection of Strauss choral music with orchestra; but Strauss’s choral music is hardly well known even today, and the inclusion here of the second song from the cycle - the only one written for male voices only - is most welcome.
So, rather a mixed bag, then, but there are some superb things here - and if you don’t know any of these pieces you have a real treat in store. Also many of the recommendable alternative recordings of these works appear to be no longer available. The choir, as I have indicated, are well-balanced and have plenty of strength in tone; the recording and conducting are both excellent, too. Texts and translations are, alas, only provided online.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
A mixed bag, some superb things here, a real treat in store.