Notes and Editorial Reviews
No realistic listener will expect a collection this extensive--8 CDs covering 14 works, most of them major compositions and most offered in their entirety, recorded from 1989 to 1997 and featuring several choirs and orchestras in different venues--to hold under one roof (in this case a sturdy cardboard box) all of the first-choice performances of the pieces in question or to consistently represent the ideal in recording quality. However, if you're looking for a very respectable survey of some of the 19th century's grandest and most glorious choral music in performances that often are outstanding and never less than very good, you'll find nothing less than many hours of pure pleasure in this thoughtfully compiled set.
For one thing, the conductor is one of today's most intelligent, practical, and knowledgable interpreters of large-scale choral music. And he's one of the most experienced, exhibiting his love for all sorts of choral repertoire through dozens of recordings of both ancient and modern works, from Penderecki and Rihm to his complete Bach cantatas edition for Hänssler. And his passion clearly comes through in his conducting, especially in these "romantic" masterpieces, for which he seems to inspire whatever choirs and orchestras he's leading (all of them excellent, by the way) to his own interpretive vision.
The heart of the set--discs 3, 4, and 5--contain perhaps the most popular and enduring works: Dvorák's monumental Stabat mater and all of the Brahms pieces, including the complete German Requiem. The Dvorák is a solid performance by the Oregon Bach Festival, commandingly conducted, with outstanding solo work, especially by tenor James Taylor. It's not, however, more illuminating than Shaw's valedictory rendition or Belohlavek's expansive reading. The shorter Brahms pieces with the Gächinger Kantorei and Bach-Collegium Stuttgart are excellent--Schicksalslied and Nänie in particular--but in the Requiem, the work that most listeners will know best, Rilling occasionally exhibits some quirky, often sudden shifts of tempo and dynamics that may make some kind of textual sense, but musically just sound arbitrary and somewhat jarring.
Highlights from the rest of the set include a truly lovely rendition of Mendelssohn's Psalm 42 (the Stuttgart forces again), some memorable solo singing by soprano Simone Nold (Jemima) in Schubert's unfinished oratorio Lazarus (here we get all 76 minutes of the composer's "fragment"), the very early Motetto per San Paolino by a 19-year-old Puccini that shows all the promise of the great opera-composer-to-be (and features an at-the-time emerging young bass, Matthias Goerne), and three gorgeous (and magnificently overwritten) sections of César Franck's Les Béatitudes (more great solo singing), these last two works performed by the Gächinger Kantorei and Stuttgart Radio Symphony.
And speaking of overwrought--we also get to experience Liszt's all-too-voluptuous setting of Stabat mater and two of Bruckner's endless, if often beautiful, masses. Verdi's segment of the Messa per Rossini, Libera me, concludes the disc and the set in a (sort of) contemplative mood, with soprano Gabriela Benacková wowing us with her amazing range and expressive powers. As suggested above, the choirs and orchestras throughout are first-rate--and it's interesting to hear the difference in overall tone quality between the American-based Oregon Bach Festival choir (brighter, more open sound) and the German ensembles (darker vowels, more covered sound). It's also a treat to have all of this music in one place in such consistently fine performances and in generally top-notch sound. On a couple of the discs I had to turn my volume higher than my normal listening level--and I'm not a fan of the flimsy paper sleeves that encase the individual discs (you can't get them out without getting fingerprints on the data side). Liner notes are minimal but informative; no texts or translations are included.
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com