'The ordinary goes down unsung to Orcus' are the last words of Schiller's Naenie. Brahms's Naenie is sung very rarely, and his Triumphlied hardly ever, in my experience. Following shortly on the Requiem, Brahms turned out Rinaldo, the Alto Rhapsody, the Song of Destiny and the Triumphlied one after another, followed after a longer interval by Naenie and the Song of the Fates. The Alto Rhapsody has become an established favourite, but the uneconomic format of the others, calling for chorus, and in the Triumphlied and Rinaldo a soloist also, as well as the orchestra in shortish pieces, tends to keep them out of the repertory.
I already own the marvellous performance that Sinopoli gave of Rinaldo with Kollo as soloist, and I was keen to add whatever else he might have done by way of the shorter Brahms choral pieces, particularly as I had no record of the Triumphlied at all. In some ways the disc is really superlative, and that makes it all the greater pity that the recording doesn't do it full justice. The volume-level is rather low, but that is no problem on its own. What the recorded sound lacks here is fullness, body, bloom, that sort of thing, in music that is crying out for it. I own an ancient LP containing the Song of Destiny and Naenie done by the Suisse Romande (hardly the world's greatest orchestra) under Ansermet. The recording is not new either, but the swooping-and-rising violin phrase in the prelude to the Song of Destiny is sumptuous and gorgeous, far more effectively captured than here. Naenie (`threnody') is a work that comes close to being obscenely beautiful, and the great full-throated effect in the last stanza comes over not too badly here, but again it is probably no better than on the LP, if indeed as good.
In general this an exasperating curate's-egg of an issue. Much of the orchestral work, and all of the conducting without exception, seem to me absolutely outstanding. In particular I would draw attention to some superb high-speed precision work from the violins in the Triumphlied and to the superlative handling of the transition from the second to the third stanza of the Alto Rhapsody. I have a hunch that the drum-beat at the start of the Song of Destiny was probably of the same order, but I have to suspend judgment about that on account of the recording. There is a real sense of `quality' about the orchestral playing, both in phrasing and in tone, and as I found the same in Sinopoli's recordings of Rinaldo and the Mahler 8th with other orchestras I am sure he deserves much of the credit for that. His choice of tempi had me convinced from start to finish too, and the second stanza of the Song of Destiny in particular struck me as outstandingly successful, with a really magnificent `von Klippe zu Klippe'. As regards the singing, Wolfgang Brendel does very well in the Triumphlied. So, really, does Fassbaender in the Alto Rhapsody, but I have heard her vocal quality come across more seductively than it manages to here. The chorus gave me a couple of slightly uneasy moments, whether or not that again was down at least partly to the recording, but in general they acquit themselves at least adequately and they manage to sound properly formidable in the Song of Destiny and the Triumphlied.
Texts are translated into English and French, and the liner-note is given in no fewer than five languages. Under the circumstances I would have liked it to be a great deal better than it is. In general it consists too much of glimpses of the obvious and of points that are neither here nor there. There is, in particular, a well-known issue regarding the composer's intention in the Song of Destiny, and the writer fumbles with that. The first section is in one key and consists of a prelude and a choral section to a text about the remote felicity of the gods. The second section is in a different key, and relates to the wretched lot of humanity. There the poet, Hoelderlin, leaves matters. The liner-note writer very properly quotes letters by Brahms expressing a need to say more. What we need is some proper thought about what this might have been. Brahms follows the gloomy second stanza with a re-scored version of the serene prelude, significantly lacking its firm opening drum-beat, but in the `human' key, as Tovey acutely points out, not the `gods' key. Does Brahms mean to express faith (not if I know him), or hope (not his forte either)? To me it is a message of consolation, like some of the texts in the Requiem only this time not biblical, indeed not to words at all. Behind the suffering there is exaltation.
I think I had better make some sense of the remarks on Schiller's Naenie too. On the sleeve of my LP this is described as a sonnet. It is 14 lines long (the print-layout seems to have been designed to obscure this as much as possible) but unrhymed, so it can hardly be that. What the liner-note is trying to say is that the verse form is the classical `elegiac couplet', and confuses this with elegiac sentiment which is nothing to do with the verse form. What an extraordinary and marvellous poem it is too.
My own special trophy here is the Triumphlied, to texts from the Apocalypse and celebrating the victory of Germany in the Franco-Prussian war. Brahms studied Handel as well as Bach, indeed his choral writing seems to me the best since Handel's own. Brahms is not afraid to tread where such mighty feet have trodden before him, but characteristically he makes a gesture, or more than one, of deference to his great predecessor. To my mind, and I believe to his own despite his ironical manner, he needs fear comparison with nobody. I would not call Brahms's Triumphlied quite the equal of Handel's Dettingen Te Deum, but the occasion it celebrates is altogether more significant. Handel's great masterpiece has now been restored to reflect his true intentions, and nobody listening to it gives a passing thought to the satirical monarch and the Gilbertian victory that gave rise to it. Memories are still raw as regards the long-term consequences of Bismarck, but in political terms Brahms is not suspect and his Triumphlied needs restoring to the repertory.
[Edit to dedicate this short commentary on the music of human mortality to the memory of Bob Zeidler, died 2 April 2005 aged 66 years].