Goethe Vertonungen (Goethe Settings) = MENDELSSOHN: Overture in D, “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage”, Op. 27; The First Walpurgis Night, Op. 80; BRAHMS: Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53; SCHUMANN: Requiem for Mignon, Op. 98b – Barbara Holzl, alto/ Christian Elsner, tenor/ Detief Roth, bass/Freiburger Bach Choir/ SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Frieburg/ Hans Michael Beuerle – Ars Musici 232310, 69:35 [Distr. by Naxos] ****1/2:
You never know where good recordings are going to pop up from. This one is a magnificent example of apt and particularly intelligent programming, bringing works together around a common theme that, while in this instance not an especially sterling one, still serves to gather some works that, with the exception of the “Alto” Rhapsody, are not heard that much. But all these being Goethe settings or inspired by them—as in the case of the overture—serve as a tenuous programmatic construct to put some terrific music all on one disc.
So let’s start with Brahms; Barbara Holzl has a fine alto voice, not as consistent as some others in the role, notably my two favorites, in order: Anne-Sophie von Otter with James Levine and the Vienna Philharmonic (DGG, along with the Third Symphony), and Marilyn Horne with Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony (Telarc). And this orchestra is not going to be mistaken for the VPO, so perfectly fitted to this luscious music. But they also give the score a little grit that is not always out of place in this sometimes borderline tonal piece (and bathed in pathos), and Holzl’s reading is done with such fervent effort that in the end she sells us as long as we keep the competition on the shelves.
Schumann’s Requiem for Mignon is a piece that had its origins in the preparations for the 100th birthday of Goethe. “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship”, the eighth book, served as Schumann’s inspiration for the work, especially for the character of Mignon, though he felt free to rework some of the scenes and change character designations, something Goethe would no doubt have balked at, though even he recognized the superior power of music over that of the written word. Schumann was pleased with work, and its premiere followed one year later. The piece is vastly underplayed, and this new version takes a front seat to my previous favorite, John Eliot Gardiner on Archiv.
Perhaps it was the fact that Mendelssohn knew Goethe personally, and that the latter held him in high regard that makes Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage so brilliantly descriptive—the author might have had talks with the young composer. But whether he did or not, Mendelssohn’s music almost reaches the title of tone poem. We do know that there was a discussion about The First Walpurgis Night because Goethe was extremely pleased when Mendelssohn told him in 1831 of his desire to set the poem to music. The composer realized soon that this was not going to be a simple song setting, and he regarded it as one of the toughest tasks he had yet embarked on. But the work is a phenomenal setting of the genius of Goethe, equally ravished by the genius of the composer whose scintillating music transfigures the poetry and present us with a musical icon of a verbal masterpiece. Only the old Philadelphia/Ormandy recording on RCA tops my enthusiasm for this one.
Beuerle and company dig into these works with relish, and their enthusiasm makes up for the few things lacking in execution—which is generally excellent. Aside from the half-point deduction for lack of translations of the texts—so important in a concept album like this—recommendation is self-evident.
— Steven Ritter