Brahms: Rinaldo; Ellens Gesang II; Begräbnisgesang; Gesang der Parzen

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Rinaldo; Ellens Gesang II; Begräbnisgesang; Gesang der Parzen
PERFORMER: Steve Davislim (tenor), Véronique Gens (soprano); Dresden PO & Chorus, Ernst Senff Chorus/Michel Plasson
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 56983 2
Although Brahms felt himself ill-equipped for writing opera, his dramatic instincts, lyrical rather than dialectical, were far from negligible and, despite the protracted nature of Goethe’s text, are markedly evident in the 40-minute cantata Rinaldo, intended for a competition in 1863, left for a while unfinished, and eventually premiered in 1869, with a choir of 300. The Dresden and Berlin forces on this disc may not compete in numbers, but they project Brahms’s impassioned choral writing – which aspires to, if not quite attains, the ecstasy of the liberated prisoners in Fidelio – with singing that is wonderfully robust and sharply focused.

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The musical heart of the work, however, lies in the tenor solos, here delivered sympathetically by Steve Davislim, who identifies with Rinaldo’s dilemma – choosing between loyalty to friends and submission to the enchantress Armida – with the fervour of the manacled Florestan. But the work as a whole needs less leisurely presentation and a dryer acoustic. The shorter works on the disc, too, are far from insignificant; indeed, the sombre yet uplifting processional Begräbnisgesang and the Gesang der Parzen, with its eerie coda prescient of Shostakovich at his iciest, are masterworks by any standards, and receive appropriately dedicated readings. Antony Bye