Brahms's doleful choral works with orchestra evoke ambivalent responses, since at least two, the alto Rhapsody and Deutches Requiem, represent his genius in full flower. The rhapsody represented on disc by performances that far surpass this new budget release on Naxos. Although piecemeal, wit's conducting is assured enough, and caught in good sound, but his contralto soloist, Eva Wolak, is loud and unsubtle, failing to communicate the tenderness or inward sympathy of the narrator. If you like coarse, chesty singing, she certainly is no wallflower. The beautiful transition that ushers in the male chorus comes to nothing here, and the Polish choral force is ordinary. Classic recordings by Ferrier, Ludwig, and Baker rank many notches higher on all counts except recorded sound. .
Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) Op. 54 has an ops number directly following the Alto Rhapsody, and it hangs on at the edges of the standard repertory, with greater popularity in Germany. I agree with the lead reviewer that Brahms's choral works require close, repeated attention. Few are immediately winning, and the fact that Schicksalslied lacks a soloist or any great melodic appeal, added to its inward melancholy, works against it. But here Brahms has rendered in a Romantic idiom the solemn reverence of the old masters, especially Scheutz and Bach, that he studied so closely. Wit and his Warsaw forces deliver a clean, flowing, respectful reading that doesn't really rival first-rate recordings like the nuanced one under Abbado with the Berliners (DG). More recently, John Eliot Gardiner got spectacular singing from his Monteverdi Choir that leaves all competitors in the dust.
Gardiner opens with a strikingly dramatic funeral march for chorus, winds, and timpani -- Begrabnigesang, Op. 13 -- that was the first effort of a brilliant 25-year-old to set chorus and orchestra together. I had never heard of it, much less listened to it, but Brahms has discovered the same stern, uplifting Protestant tone that would characterize the German Requiem. Wit's account is slower, more solemn, and a bit ordinary by comparison; it misses the underlying drama of death that haunted Brahms. The Ave Maria Op. 12 that came before Begrabnisgesang isn't a breakthrough work but a pleasant-sounding hymn for women's chorus that shows the young composer's talent nonetheless.
Wit's generous program of six choral works proceeds chronologically and ends with two pieces I've never encountered in the concert hall, Nanie Op. 82 and Gesang der Parzen Op. 89, both so fully mature that they bear close listening, and reward it. Nanie is a lementation for the dead, specifically a friend of Brahms's, and even though I wouldn't choose to sit and listen to an hour's worth of Brahms in sorrow, his intertwining voices and intense emotion here really do make one think of Scheutz and Bach. Wit's fully committed reading is one of the best things, and perhaps the very best, on the disc. Gardiner is again a direct rival, with better playing, singing, and sound. But all of his recent Brahms choral work, excepting the Requiem, come as fillers to his unlistenable (to me) HIP-style Brahms symphonies. One gets smoother, more assured performance style (non-HIP) in a choral collection on Decca with Blomstedt and the San Francisco Sym., but the chorus is distant and a little woolly.
Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates), based like the alto Rhapsody on Goethe, is derived from the poet's neoclassical drama, Iphigenia on Tauris. It is forceful and far more dramatized than the preceding pieces, especially in wit's sharply contoured reading, which bests Blomstedt's. His chorus, smaller and more intimate-sounding, is also better. Gardiner comes out first again, however, with even more drama and force. His Monteverdi Choir has risen to an all but unsurpassed level of ensemble, flexibility, and intonation. The fastest account is a striking one under Sinopoli with the Czech Phil., now decades old; it always suffered from thin, edgy sound.
On balance, Wit's collection has to be considered a good addition to the discography of Brahms choral works, and leaving aside Blomstedt, almost every rival since Sinopoli's erratic survey for DG consists of fillers for symphonies. Wit's two strongest readings are the Nanie and Gesang der Parzen, while there's not much to admire about the Alto Rhapsody and Schicksalslied unless you completely ignore past great recordings. My rating is an average, therefore.