BRAHMS: Schicksalslied, Op. 54; Alto Rhapsodie, Op. 53; Warum ist das Licht gegeben, Op. 74/1; Begrabnisgesang, Op. 13; Gesang der Parzen, Op. 89 – Ann Hallenberg, alto/ Collegium Vocale Gent/ Orchestre des Champs-Elysees/ Philippe Herreweghe – PHI Records LPH 003, 56:48 [Distr. by Allegro] ***1/2:
Herreweghe is one of my favorite conductors, and it is a rare day when I hear something by him that I don’t like all that much—this is one of those days. I still give it three and one-half stars because the choral singing is so ravishing, even though I find it curious that those of the period instrument movement seem to pay so little attention to supposed historical notions of what the voice was and was not allowed to do in times of old, focusing almost entirely on the instruments instead. In the case of Brahms, the Collegium Vocale Gent surely feels the passion of these works and is allowed to present such in as much vocal glory as they can muster. But somehow the accompanying of strings that stink of period-parlance just doesn’t make Brahms into the radiant, ravishing, and brilliantly burnished composer that we all need him to be. I don’t for one minute doubt—or should I say, know—that the composer might indeed have had to hear orchestras perform with this sort of whittled-down and astringently sparse tonal style, not that this orchestra doesn’t play very well indeed. But I also don’t care, knowing in my heart of hearts that if Brahms indeed was composing for orchestras that were not as adept as modern ones in bringing the full frontal force of his ideas to the fore, he certainly envisioned such in his mind, and would be far happier with today’s standards.
These works, surely some of the greatest ever created for chorus and/or orchestra, and in the case of the Alto Rhapsody one of the finest works of its kind, are deserving of the best performances we can muster, and indeed have found them in many different recordings. While everyone has their favorites, I have always been partial to Anne-Sophie von Otter’s account of the AR on DGG with Levine, and Robert Shaw’s incandescent readings of most of these pieces on Telarc, along with Marilyn Horne’s far too frequent incursion in this repertory in the AR. The ASO chorus sends all others into the closet, and few conductors have the measure of these pieces compared to Shaw. Herreweghe is one of them, actually; but there is too much baggage from another world to be fully convincing. Sound, though, is excellent.