I recently read a critic who said, if you only knew Johannes Brahms through his larger orchetral pieces, you really only knew half the man. His point was that Brahms wrote a lot of vocal and choral music that disclosed a more intimate, and often more melancholy, side of the composer.
This recording features two of Brahms acknowledged choral masterpieces -- the Op. 89 Gesang der Parzen or Song of the Fates, his Alto Rhapsody Op. 53, and the cantata for tenor, choir and orchestra Rinaldo Op. 50. All three are written to texts from Geothe and the latter two were written within a year of each other in Brahms mid-life composing period. The later Gesang der Parzen, which musicologist David Ewen called perhaps Brahms greatest choral piece in 1953, is from his later period and reflects more of the composers autumnal, end of life character.
The performances herein, led by veteran German conductot Gerd Albrecht employing the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Danish National Choir and soloists Ann Larsson and Stig Anderson, are all at least satisfactory and sometimes border on greatness. I am most familiar with the rhapsody, of which no recording I've heard compares to that from Marian Anderson, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1937. This is music-making on a most exalted scale that represents Brahms' loss of a potential mate and a half century of longing for Clara Schumann, to whom he addressed love letters regularly after Roberts' death and to whom Brahms often first showed his newest music.
Anna Larsson's rendition is very good and sometimes comes close to the goose flesh rendition Anderson gave us that is still available on several different recordings including a great Harmony House production from last year. Larsson's contralto is neither as husky, dark nor emotional as Anderson's, but still she has a persuasive manner with this grief-stricken and longing-enduced music. In her hands, it remains an unforgettable piece of music and, in my opinion, Brahms very best vocal composition, quite far ahead of that pagan requiem he wrote upon his mother's death that millions seem to equate with admittance to heaven.
The other items here, while not nearly as great as the rhapsody, each have their benefits for attentive listeners. I've never cared much for romantic 19th century poetry set to music and the text to the Song of the Fates often gets away from me. Near as I can tell, its text is about humans not forgetting the power of the gods -- whomever they may be; Brahms was not a believer in the Christian or religious God -- and the way those "Titans" manage our lives on earth.
Rinaldo, a cantata, is perhaps as close as Brahms came to writing operatic music. It has more than faint dramatic echoes of Beethoven's Lenore and contains some of the tension of Mendelssohn's oratorios. Rinaldo leaves his duty to fight in the Crusades to chase a woman, and is eventually convinced to return to duty by his compatriots. Danish tenor Heldentenor Stig Anderson does ably in the lead role and he is supported well by the combined forces. His 2004 photo shows a smiling fellow about 50 with a ruddy complexion and the notes say he has sung Siegfried in Siegfried and Gotterdamerung productions on several continents.
The Chandos recording is about what I've come to expect from this source -- good for its period (2004) but not great with a much more homogenized sound than I'd like. I wish Chandos would take a few tips from BBC Music and learn how to record in even the Royal Albert Hall with a result that every instrument and every voice has its own individuality in an environment of ultimate clarity. This is clearly a good recording but it could be a lot better and that improvement would benefit both the soloists, choir and listener.
Still, this is a good package of some of Brahms greatest choral music. Anyone looking to add modern recordings of either of the three pieces to their collections will do well by acquiring this, although you'll do best by not paying Chandos's ridiculously high list price. If you're shopping through Amason, chances are that's not going to happen, fortunately.