PARADIESE NOCH EINMAL
DAVID BRYSON | Glossop Derbyshire England | 09/06/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"From my own point of view I recommend this set heartily. However not all, perhaps not even most, of the set is a safe middle-of-the-road recommendation, and I need to do my best to explain just what I'm recommending and in what senses.
Choral music makes up the largest part of Brahms's output, as of Bach's. My impression is that at the big end the biggest item of all, the Requiem, is the best known along with the Alto Rhapsody. The Song of Destiny seems to get reasonably frequent performances, Naenie and the Song of the Fates less frequent, and the Triumphlied and Rinaldo very few indeed. The grand and sombre motets appear to be for an audience of determined Brahmsians and the academic market in the main. At the smaller extreme there is a generous offering of pieces in generally lighter vein. The two sets of Liebeslieder waltzes with piano duet accompaniment can be called reasonably popular, as can the Zigeunerlieder with their single piano, but I would not be sure these days how well known the other works for small choir with various small instrumental ensembles or with none may be, even to devotees of the composer's instrumental works and solo songs. For anyone with a compulsion, or even just moderate curiosity, to understand this towering master better, the first thing that I commend about this particular set is the actual selection.
The second point I ought to make is that the better-known items here receive the most controversial performances. I had better get out the way immediately my reluctant opinion that I don't like Janet Baker as soloist in the Alto Rhapsody. I feel now as I felt when I heard her from a good seat in the Festival Hall that her voice is too bland for it. I really want more heart in the final rendering of the hymn, but above all this is not a piece for a mezzo at all. It needs a contralto. Other mezzos at least make more of an effort than Dame Janet seems to on the extraordinary low notes at Das Grass steht wieder auf, but for me nothing short of the great boom Ferrier lets out at this point will do. The performance is full of taste, musicianship and general understanding I quite admit and you may like it better than I do, but I should say sample it first. The Requiem from Tennstedt is even more of a specialised taste - good heavens is it ever slow! He takes more than a quarter of an hour longer over it than Previn does in my own favourite account, from 2000 with the LSO, taking it on to the second disc for Selig sind die Toten, which takes nearly a quarter of an hour by itself. And Previn's speeds are very average, slower overall than Klemperer's for one. I couldn't help recalling what Shaw said about Brahms's Requiem being tolerable only to the corpse. That said, Tennstedt knows what he is doing, his account has full consistency of approach, and the sepulchral (though quite distinct) quality of the recording is all part of the effect, still exercising that hypnotic quality that Brahms commands. I was a little disappointed by Wie lieblich, where Previn's dry-eyed approach, although again part and parcel of his view, left me hankering for a slower beat, but somehow Tennstedt misses the magic. What complicates the issue is the soprano solo from Jessye Norman. It's slow again, but when that great laser-beam of a voice pealed out with Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit I don't mind who knows that tears were rolling down my face. Contrast may have something to do with it, but this is the greatest account of that great aria that I have ever heard.
The Liebeslieder waltzes are from 1959, and the sound has been very well updated, although you may need to dampen the volume. The soloists are straight from performances of The Messiah conducted by Sargent in the Albert Hall with the `Oodersfield Choral Society, and the pianists are none other than Vronsky and Babin, names I had thought as mythical as Hansel and Gretel or as saints Cosmas and Damian. Unfashionable or not, they could sing and play, the songs are free from the boredom that many performances inflict, and I have never heard them done better. In the Zigeunerlieder the style is more arty and less hearty, making a pleasant contrast, and each set of songs features a fine tenor solo.
The least familiar of the items get the best performances. Three of the great motets are given by Ledger in a style less austere than Herreweghe's, and the Festive and Commemorative choruses, a cappella but less severe, are again rightly given by a different group taking a style that is more outgoing. There are 10 unaccompanied part-songs plus the 4 songs with horns and harp, all beautifully done although I still miss the sumptuous sound that the Kansas City Chorale bring to the latter set. Both the Song of Destiny and the Song of the Fates are superb, but for me the glittering prizes are the Triumphlied and Rinaldo, both rare birds on the earth and given in performances to rival Sinopoli's. Part of Brahms's complex makeup was a penchant for taking on his predecessors at their greatest, such as the passacaglia from the fourth symphony vs Bach's chaconne, the romanze from the first quartet vs Beethoven's cavatina and the scherzo of the piano quintet vs that in Beethovens fifth, and it always brings out the best in him. In the Triumphlied he even mimics Handel's Purcell-inspired declamation of `Hall-eh-EH-lu-JAH, and what a superb piece it is, with a fine soloist in Dietrich Henschel. Rinaldo seems to me one of the greatest things Brahms ever did, and we lost a lot by his failure to write an opera. Steve Davislim is worthy of Kollo in Sinopoli's version, and Plasson even outdoes Sinopoli at that marvellous start and above all at the heart-stopping music for the diamond shield - is there a Leitmotiv, or indeed a piece of orchestration, in all Wagner to equal this?
Such are the contents of what I venture to think one of the most significant choral issues in many years."