Antoni Wit / Ewa Wolak / Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra

Brahms: Choral Music

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This collection of short choral pieces by Johannes Brahms is an unusual one in present times, partly because many of the choral parts are quite demanding. For a choral club in the 19th century, however, it wouldn't have been so novel, and there are great beauties on offer here. After the fetching Ave Maria, Op. 12, the rest of the program is dense, metaphysical, and, with the partial exception of the Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53, concerned with death. There are two funeral songs, and two more about fate, and this is not the warm, humanistic Brahms of the German Requiem, Op. 45. The performances are profound and dignified, and the overall effect uncanny. The Warsaw Philharmonic Choir under choirmaster Henryk Wojnarowski has a gorgeous rich tone that is undiminished by the long lines of the music, and the Alto Rhapsody achieves real grandeur in the hands of contralto Ewa Wolak. But the real credit goes to the Warsaw Philharmonic and conductor Antoni Wit, who keep a consistent level of tension and momentum in difficult, dark material like the somber Nänie, Op. 82 (Funeral Song), a rarely performed late Brahms masterwork. This isn't an album you'd choose for a garden party, but Naxos appears to have struck hold with these Polish musicians in its long period of experimentation with Eastern European ensembles. The engineering, accomplished in Warsaw Philharmonic Hall on a series of dates in early 2010, makes the lines of this intricate music perfectly clear.

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