Brahms, Schubert: Symphony No. 2; Alto Rhapsody; Gesang der Geister über den Wassern; Gruppe aus dem Tartarus (arr. Brahms)

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Brahms,Schubert
LABELS: Soli Deo Gloria
WORKS: Symphony No. 2; Alto Rhapsody; Gesang der Geister über den Wassern; Gruppe aus dem Tartarus (arr. Brahms)
PERFORMER: Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto); Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique; The Monteverdi Choir/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: SDG 703

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The two most interesting offerings here are the Symphony and that wonderful Schubertian one-off Gesang der Geister. In the Second Symphony the period strings’ lighter articulation gives Brahms’s rhythms a sprightlier feel than in many modern versions. The sound of the woodwind section, too, is fresh and well balanced, with even trombone and tuba joining the choir smoothly in the Adagio. Gardiner also manages to remind us that this is Brahms’s most sombre, inward looking slow movement. Furthermore, in Gesang der Geister Gardiner avoids any awkward episodic feeling by making the music tell the story of Goethe’s poem fluently and with character. That however is the only performance where the whole seems greater than the sum of its parts. In Gardiner’s magnificent Schumann symphony set there was a sense that he had found the pulse and the lyrical swing of the music as few had done before.In his Brahms, however, both qualities are more sporadic. And I’m not sure about some of his rubatos in the first movement of the Symphony No. 2 – they’re not exaggerated, but they don’t feel organic. The Alto Rhapsody starts very effectively, but although Nathalie Stutzmann makes a magnificent sound, there’s something decidedly earthbound about her phrasing, and she has a tendency to approach key notes from slightly under the pitch which won’t appeal to everyone. I still keep coming back to Klemperer in the Symphony: severe at times but very compelling; while the Baker/Boult 1970 Alto Rhapsody digs deeper into the notes than almost any rival. Stephen Johnson