Brahms: Alto Rhapsody; Schicksalslied; Warum ist das Licht gegeben; Begräbnisgesang; Gesang der Parzen

COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Phi
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: Alto Rhapsody; Schicksalslied; Warum ist das Licht gegeben; Begräbnisgesang; Gesang der Parzen
PERFORMER: Ann Hallenberg (mezzo-soprano); Collegium Vocale Gent; Orchestre des Champs-Elysées/Philippe Herreweghe
CATALOGUE NO: Phi LPH 003

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This is one of the most impressive collections of Brahms’s shorter chorus-and-orchestra works that’s come my way for some time. It’s partly because of the particular combination of works – not only the gorgeous Schicksalslied, Alto Rhapsody and Gesang der Parzen but also the wonderful early Begräbnisgesang for voices and wind (performed here with fervent intensity) and the big unaccompanied motet Warum ist das Licht gegeben. This sometimes enigmatic work proves the equal of the others in profound personal emotion and philosophical penetration.

But it’s also the luminous transparency of the performances themselves that’s remarkable. Philippe Herreweghe has a fresh and probing approach. In the Gesang der Parzen, so often heavy-footed, he harks back to its Baroque roots, producing precise, incisive choral singing that brings out the separate polyphonic strands. The sudden hush at the end, with its gaze toward Alpine immensities, comes almost as a shock.

In the motet, the Collegium Vocale Gent produces a creamy, beautifully sustained tone that especially benefits the later, canonic sections of the work. In the other works there’s a welcome elegance to the playing from the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, too. Ann Hallenberg is a calm, perhaps slightly statuesque soloist in the Alto Rhapsody, which nevertheless receives a performance of great warmth. In the Schicksalslied, Herreweghe finds a complex, almost painful radiance in the C major orchestral ending. All in all, on many levels, a deeply satisfying recording.

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Calum MacDonald