Strauss: A Cappella

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

WORKS: Deutsche Motette, Op. 62; Traumlicht, Op. 123 No. 2; Zwei Gesänge, Op. 34
PERFORMER: Jane Archibald (soprano), Dagmar Pecková (alto), Eric Soklossa (tenor), Robert Gleadow (bass-baritone); Accentus; Latvian Radio Choir/Laurence Equilbey

I had almost given up on the prospect of ever hearing Strauss’s Deutsche Motette performed really convincingly. Asking a large,  multi-divided unaccompanied chorus plus four soloists to stay in tune for nearly 20 minutes, at the same time coping with harmonic progressions as luxuriously complex as in Strauss’s late masterpiece for strings, Metamorphosen – for once it seemed the brilliantly practical Strauss had reached beyond the stars.
This performance by the combined forces of the Latvian Radio Choir and Accentus isn’t absolutely perfect, but it comes so close that I’m sure most ears will barely notice the odd slight waver in pitch when the harmonic going gets really tough. Hearing exquisite Straussian tonal twists sung with such precision and evident love is a treat for both ear and heart.
But the real miracle is what stands revealed overall – something unique in the history of choral music. At times – and especially towards its radiant climax – the Deutsche Motette feels like a near-impossible fusion of the spirit of Tallis’s 40-part Spem in alium with the loveliest pages of Strauss’s own Daphne or Ariadne auf Naxos. And conductor Laurence Equilbey and her singers seem equally responsive to both extremes. Incredibly the piece’s huge span seems just right – not a moment overlong.
Then come more gems: the quietly gorgeous Traumlicht (‘Dreamlight’) for male voices, and the effectively contrasted diptych Zwei Gesänge (‘Two Hymns’), all in sumptuously atmospheric recordings. The opening couple of minutes of the first of the Zwei Gesänge, ‘Der Abend’ (Evening) constitute perhaps the most beautiful thing on the whole disc: try playing this to musical friends and asking them to guess the composer, and then enjoy watching them flounder. Yes, at 47:30 the total playing time is on the short side.
There would have been room quite comfortably for the two other Op. 123 male-voice choruses that frame Traumlicht, but as Christian Goubault points out in his notes, Traumlicht is closest in spirit to the Deutsche Motette and Zwei Gesänge. In any case I’d be happy to pay full price just for what we have here. Stephen Johnson