Here's a very nifty program of works that would all have been well known to a German audience of the 19th century but that, except for the Brahms Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53, aren't heard that often nowadays, and still more rarely together, the medium in which they make the most sense. Think of the meeting point between Goethe's poetry and Romantic music, and it is likely Schubert's songs that will come to mind. Yet Goethe's more extended works, with their Shakespearean mixture of simplicity and gnarly depth, fascinated composers of the era and received various longer settings. Mendelssohn's orchestral overture Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt, Op. 27 (Calm Sea and Happy Voyage), was subjected to numerous reworkings before the composer allowed it to be published, and its treatment of the sea imagery in Goethe's pair of poems matches the deceptive simplicity of the texts. The star of this 1999 live recording (reissued by the Ars Musici label in 2009) is alto soloist Barbara Hölzl, whose unearthly low sounds and excellent control over the work's structural intricacies result in a memorable performance of the Brahms Rhapsodie für eine Altstimme, Männerchor, und Orchester, otherwise known as the Alto Rhapsody. The two large choral works that round out the album are a bit less successful in that the regional Freiburger Bachchor is not quite up to the toughest intonational challenges, but each holds the listener's interest. The Mendelssohn setting of Die erste Walpurgisnacht, a poem about some Druids who cook up a ruse to foil Christian prohibitions against their rituals, is a delight and is well worth hearing against the background of both the composer's and the aging poet's religious backgrounds. This is a recording that gives listeners a lot to chew on, in the best way. The booklet notes, though rather prolix (check out the column-and-a-half sentence beginning on the right side of p. 19), do justice to the material. You may complain that the booklet, though devoting space to German, English, and French versions of the lengthy notes, gives Goethe's poetry only in German, or that the Beethoven version of Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt, which would easily have fit on the disc, is inexplicably ignored. But fine, clear live sound balances the ledger. Strongly recommended for anyone who has ever tried to get a grip on Goethe's writing.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim