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John Guarente
Choral Journal, June 2014

The Warsaw Philharmonic Choir…produces a tone that is predictably dark but never old or throaty-sounding. Even at these carefully slow tempi, the chorus maintains a buzzing energy, which helps the phrases remain buoyant and restless throughout. Contralto soloist Ewa Wolak handles Alto Rhapsody with an appropriate pathos, and her even, haunting vibrato makes it plain to see why she is one of Penderecki’s favorite singers.

…the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir’s rich sound is extremely well suited to this music, and Maestro Wit’s controlled interpretation of Brahms’s langsam proves how well these slow tempi can work with a large enough chorus. © 2014 Choral Journal

Oleg Ledeniov
MusicWeb International, August 2012

The order of the works provides diversity: the soothing alternates with the angry, Heaven on one hand and the Underworld on the other.

Ave Maria is luminous and fluffy, like sunlit clouds. It goes from tender pianissimo to powerful avowal. The music resembles softly rocking waves, yet is energetic.

The Purcell-style, string-less Begräbnisgesang takes after the All Flesh is Grass movement from the Requiem. The morbid timpani are persistent: reminders of Death. The dark, bass-rich music develops to the heights of avid terror but then there comes a more lyrical, comforting episode, where the timpani are quiet. The residual feeling is unexpectedly positive.

Alto Rhapsody is the crown of the orchestral songs. The composition is in three sections. The first is like a pregnant introduction, slow and tense. The aria-like second part is passionate, very Romantic, depicting the soul torn by suffering. The chorus joins the soloist in the third part—an emotive prayer, which turns the “poison” back into “balsam”. Gradually comes the feeling of joy, and a confidence that all will be well.

[In] Schiller’s Nänie…The writing is robust; the chorus is powerful. This piece is more monolithic than its neighbors, without their spikes and trenches; it rises and recedes like a wave.

The Fourth Symphony peeks through the symphonic writing of Gesang der Parzen. The music is stern and potent. The performances are lean, light and powerful. The solo alto singing is almost operatic; Ewa Wolak’s voice is strong and even, without annoying vibrato. It stands well in the big range requirements of the piece…Wolak sings these long notes so beautifully, and makes such lovely transitions between the notes…The climax of the third part is loud and very intense, but still beautiful and dignified.

Schicksalslied is very persuasive; its tempestuous parts have plenty of drama and impetus, and its ending glows…in Gesang der Parzen…The performance is youthful and bouncy while not melting into pudding in more lyrical places. The orchestral interludes have symphonic power.

The chorus has a beautiful sound, very good diction, and is well balanced. It is firm and sturdy, yet can be transparent when needed. The orchestra is deft, and blends well with the chorus. The woodwinds are very expressive. The recording is spacious and clear, Naxos-style. The sound is full and majestic especially when loud. Overall this project rejoices in a sense of freshness, like clear water. If you like the feeling of being immersed in a sea of rising and falling waves of a mighty chorus you should try this disc. © 2012 MusicWeb International Read complete review

David J. Baker
Opera News, July 2012

No one should be put off by the drab, generic title of this release—“Brahms Choral Music”—which conceals a trove with as much musical-dramatic weight as many an opera. While the Warsaw forces perform these treasures with distinction, the real news is made by a single voice, that of Ewa Wolak, soloist in the Brahms Alto Rhapsody.

This seems to be that natural wonder, the true contralto, with wine-dark coloring and a cavernous lower range. The resonance continues up the scale in a rich blend with lots of undertone, the ideal sound for this work’s asperities and broad, hard-won lyricism. Wolak’s timbre has elemental expressive force, both in the steep, sudden register shifts of the lament over “Menschenhass” (hatred of humankind) and then in a compelling legato for the prayerful plea for comfort. © 2012 Opera News Read complete review

Jerry Dubins
Fanfare, July 2012

Hard on the heels of Philippe Herreweghe’s entry into this same repertoire with his Ghent Collegium Vocale and Champs-Élysées Orchestra, reviewed just in the last issue, Naxos here goes Herreweghe, and just about everyone else, one better, by offering a program more inclusive than most. Herreweghe omitted Nänie ; Robert Shaw for Telarc, Claudio Abbado for Deutsche Grammophon, Colin Davis for RCA, and Robin Ticciati for Tudor all omit Begräbnisgesang. Only one other favorite I forgot to mention in my previous review, Herbert Blomstedt with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on Decca, includes the five main numbers in the above headnote. But Antoni Wit offers up yet one more item, the Ave Maria for female chorus, originally with a part for organ that Brahms then scored for strings and winds.

I was not familiar with Polish contralto Ewa Wolak before receiving this CD, but I must say her deep-chested voice is a perfect match for the darkness of the part. Hers is a true contralto; when she hits the low B♮ four bars before the end of the first movement, you’d swear you’re hearing a man’s voice. She sings the role magnificently and is the best I’ve heard in this work since some of the past greats, such as Mildred Miller, Janet Baker, Kathleen Ferrier, and Christa Ludwig. That’s pretty high-ranking company to be included in, but Wolak delivers the goods in ways, both vocally and interpretively, that, for me, surpass every recent performance of the Alto Rhapsody I’ve heard, and that includes the Herreweghe recording with alto Ann Hallenberg.

As mentioned at the beginning, this is one of the more inclusive recordings of Brahms’s choral-orchestral works. To that I would add it is also one of the most fantastic I’m able to cite. I’ve already given the highest marks to Ewa Wolak for her performance of the Alto Rhapsody, and I’ve hinted at just how good the Warsaw Choir is in its polished singing in Nänie. But the Warsaw Philharmonic is equally magnificent and Antoni Wit cuts right to the bone of every one of these works. I would recommend this release as an urgent purchase… © 2012 Fanfare Read complete review on Fanfare

William Kreindler
MusicWeb International, June 2012

Brahms’ Begräbnislied (Burial or Funeral Song)…is appropriately hushed and granitic—like much of Brahms—but with a dramatic aspect that the conductor Antoni Wit brings out with great skillAve Maria…is simple and lilting, slightly Schumannesque, and also evidences the composer’s study of early music at this time.

The Alto Rhapsody is justly famous and has been frequently recorded. Wit’s conception of the piece is a full-blown Romantic one, with great attention paid to the dramatic arc of the work balanced with the severity of Goethe’s text. The orchestra and chorus match Wit in both these regards. Wit and his musicians turn in a fine performance…

Nanie was written in memory of the painter Anselm Feuerbach. In its gentle melancholy it is perhaps the most perfectly balanced of Brahms’ choral works. These elements are lovingly brought out by Wit and his performers. The Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates), to a text from Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris, was the composer’s last major choral work. Wit’s conception of the piece is well-thought out.

…Antoni Wit…shows great sensitivity to the unique combination of structure and emotional content found in the composer’s works. The Warsaw Philharmonic also has a natural feel for this music…The chorus is mostly proficient. While all of these works have been recorded a number of times, this disc is recommended as an economical compilation of the major Brahms choral/orchestral works…in fine performances overall. © 2012 MusicWeb International Read complete review

Paul L. Althouse
American Record Guide, May 2012

The chorus, numbering more than 75, has a rich, mature sound, ably matched by the Warsaw Philharmonic. Conductor Wit chooses broad, romantic tempos for the Alto Rhapsody, Schicksalslied and Nänie…Contralto Ewa Wolak is splendid in the Alto Rhapsody. She has an absolutely solid voice, very rich and full, with excellent intonation and feeling for the text.

So, all in all, this looks like a fine release; and indeed, every piece is nicely done. © 2012 American Record Guide Read complete review on American Record Guide online

Jean-Yves Duperron
Classical Music Sentinel, April 2012

Someone in the production department at Naxos obviously put some thought and consideration in this well-planned grouping of some of the best music for chorus and orchestra by Johannes Brahms (1833–1897). Not only are these some of the best from Brahms’ output in the genre, but they all seem to dwell on the same dark and foreboding subject matters of fate, destiny, death and ultimate redemption, and therefore come together well to create a conceptual album if you will.

Contralto Ewa Wolak does a magnificent job here as her voice seems, like a chameleon, to take on and project the spirit in the words and music as it changes. The Warsaw Philharmonic Choir also does a wonderful job as it enters quietly behind the contralto’s voice and uplifts her spiritual journey to the end.

Conductor Antoni Wit leads exemplary and commendable readings of these pieces, exposing all of Brahms’ darker colors, with here and there, the luster of old burnished gold. © 2012 Classical Music Sentinel Read complete review

James Manheim, April 2012

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)… The engineering…makes the lines of this intricate music perfectly clear. © 2012 Read complete review

Ivan March
Gramophone, March 2012

Antoni Wit is proving to be one of Naxos’s greatest assets, a conductor of strong personality who puts musical values first, yet can readily create both drama and spontaneity in the recording studio. Moreover, Ewa Wolak is a a rich-toned contralto, without a hint of a wobble, who can evoke exactly the kind of lyrical drama which the lovely Alto Rhapsody commands. I cannot say more than her account reminds one of Dame Janet Baker, and the chorale at the work’s close is richly satisfying, with the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir singing with great eloquence.

…this super-budget collection is marvellously sung and played. © 2012 Gramophone Read complete review on Gramophone, February 2012

Johannes Brahms wrote his Alto Rhapsody for contralto, male chorus and orchestra as a wedding gift for Robert and Clara Schumann’s daughter, Julie. Brahms may also have had romantic feelings for Julie that influenced the text and music for this work…Begräbnisgesang (Funeral Hymn) evinces a great feeling of solemnity, whilst Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) is an urgent, volatile work. Nänie was written as a lament for the death of the painter Anselm Feuerbach, and the Alto Rhapsody has remained one of the greatest works for contralto in the repertoire. Highly regarded Polish conductor Antoni Wit directs the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and the rich-voiced contralto soloist is Ewa Wolak. © 2012 New Classics

Calum MacDonald
BBC Music Magazine, February 2012

An anthology of all Brahms’s shorter choral-orchestral works is a welcome thing, especially in performances as sterling as these. © 2012 BBC Music Magazine

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2012

Brahms was a spasmodic composer of choral music, the present disc from Warsaw containing five of his key works in performances of outstanding quality. Stylistically they are largely a spin-off of his four symphonies reshaped to include voices, the Alto Rhapsody and Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) having become his best known. Maybe it is music that is presently in need of the stimulus this disc engenders, the smooth, elegant and perfectly blended quality of the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir placing them among the elite of the world’s finest large vocal groups. The sopranos avoid that boy treble quality now fashionable among British choirs; the basses have the warm resonance of Russian choirs, and intonation throughout is impeccable. Ewa Wolak is an alto with the inclination to be a mezzo, a very different timbre appearing as we pass between the top and bottom of the range. It certainly adds a bright and fresh quality that is very different to the rounded sound from Janet Baker and Kathleen Ferrier in their famous recordings. Antoni Wit draws warmth and beautifully textured sounds from the orchestra, their Germanic qualities surpassing most German orchestras. The engineering acts as an ideal mirror on the performances. Excellent programme notes with the original words and an English translation included.

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