RECORDS / Light from the darkness: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson clash over choral works by Brahms

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BRAHMS: Alto Rhapsody.

Song of Destiny. Marienlieder.

Nathalie Stutzmann, Bavarian

Radio SO and Chorus / Davis

(BMG/RCA 09026 61201-2)

PERFECTLY formed, not so small. Even the unaccompanied Marienlieder prove deceptively rich, their old-world churchiness seasoned with little dramatic elaborations: the voices of angels multiplying and uniting at the close of 'The Angel's Greeting', the sudden clamour of bells in the extraordinary 'Mary Goes to Church'.

No question as to the quality of the choral singing: a beautifully integrated sound, flexible and quick of reflex - an ideal choral counterpart to the well- rounded Bavarian orchestra. Together they are a consoling alliance in the Schiller setting Nanie: the sweet, distinctive Bavarian oboe could hardly be more inviting, and Sir Colin Davis duly finds the heart of this piece in a breathless pianissimo around the words das Schone vergeht ('that beauty must fade'). After which the suffocating colours of 'tragic' Brahms - trombone-heavy with cleaving upper strings - bear down on Goethe's Gesang der Parzen.

The star attraction is the Alto Rhapsody - and given that one star attraction deserves another, RCA brings on the remarkable Nathalie Stutzmann. The pronounced tension here between her dark, secretive lower register (a contralto colour of Ferrier- like intensity) and plangent top lends increased pathos to this most personal of the composer's choral miniatures. But then there's Schicksalslied, 'Song of Destiny' after Holderlin - heavenly bliss versus earthly strife - which leaves me in no doubt where Brahms believed his troubled journey would end; beyond the silver lining or not at all.

Davis would seem to share that philosophy, so luminously do he and his orchestra frame the main body of the piece. ES

IF DAVIS had shown the kind of form he did in his recent Eroica, if the orchestra and chorus had lived up to their reputation and Stutzmann to her rising star status, this glorious music could have bloomed fully. Instead there's an almost constant feeling that the performers haven't quite got there. The string figures that open the 'Song of Destiny' aspire warmly enough, but the chorus has a lustreless quality - no radiance here - and the sopranos' intonation falters later on. And while one can virtually feel Davis working to lift phrases, urging on crescendos, in fact doing all he can to raise the temperature, the needle continues to hover around the lukewarm mark.

Perhaps the slightly dull recorded sound doesn't help. But even if everything were clear and bright as a bell I think I'd still have doubts. Stutzmann sings and enunciates very expressively in the Alto Rhapsody, but there's a hard, tense quality in the voice that bothers me even when her phrasing is at its most telling. In fact the things I enjoyed most on this disc were the unaccompanied Marienlieder - hauntingly simple recreations of the spirit of folk and old church song, but at the same time echt Brahms. Here the Bavarian Radio Choir manages at last to sound as though it loves the music, and the more intimate recording picture helps too. The final verdict? A near miss perhaps, but a miss nevertheless. SJ

WEBERN: Orchestral works.

SCHOENBERG: A Survivor

from Warsaw

Vienna Philharmonic / Abbado

(DG 431 774-2)

FORTY-NINE minutes may seem like short CD measure - but that's an awful lot of Webern per minute. Claudio Abbado makes the early post-Mahlerian Passacaglia sound a lot closer to later freeze-dried Webern than I would ever have imagined possible. It's his finesse that makes all the difference. Neurotic climaxes apart, Webern's orchestral textures are supremely delicate, veiled, surreal: a pale flute or clarinet and harp, perhaps, muted brass, divisi cellos.

Similarly well elucidated are the shifts in instrumentation and colour that Webern's scoring introduces within the lines of the six-part fugue from Bach's Musical Offering. Webern's new identity for this venerable and mysterious melody is at once fascinating and disorientating. You know exactly where you are with his two sets of orchestral pieces; and the potency of every tremor, flicker, and ejaculation could hardly be more vividly projected. Schoenberg wants it both ways in A Survivor from Warsaw. I still think the traumatised spoken text an almost gratuitous overstatement of the already graphic musical melodrama - particularly as delivered by the scrupulous, heavily-accented Gottfried Hornik. ES

AS Pierre Boulez has said, there is a move to bury Schoenberg - or at least the serial Schoenberg. With the avant-garde orthodoxy of the Sixties and Seventies a thing of the past and almost no one arguing on his behalf, now looks like the right time to try. But A Survivor from Warsaw is one excellent reason to keep the name alive. In less than seven minutes, it manages to tell its horrific story and deliver one of the most powerful blows of protest in 20th-century music. The timeliness of this revival - politically as well as musically - is striking.

Hunting out extra-musical messages in Webern is harder, but Abbado's performances of the Passacaglia and the Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op 6 are a reminder that this is still a long way from 'absolute music' - the spirit of Mahler broods over both works, and its touch can be felt even in the fragile textures of the Five Pieces, Op 10. Abbado's version of the 'Funeral March' from Op 6 is genuinely frightening - and it's wonderful to hear it in its original colouring, with high, keening E flat clarinet and the ominous whisperings of the alto flute.

The Op 30 Variations are much harder to crack, but they can rarely have sounded so seductive. So why didn't Abbado add the one other Webern orchestral piece - the Symphony? With only 50 minutes of the disc used, there was more than enough room. SJ

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