Male choirs can have an advantage over their female counterparts when it comes to octaves, especially if they range from bass to countertenor, but women's voices, in harmony, have always had a unique appeal for composers.

Debussy's Nocturnes and Holst's The Planets would be unthinkable without their ethereal chorus; there is also much gender-specific choral repertoire from the chants of Hildegard of Bingen to contemporary New Zealand music such as Eve de Castro-Robinson's Chaos of Delight #III.
Rhinemaidens is a fascinating collection of German and Austrian music for women's voices, beautifully performed by the French Ensemble Pygmalion under Raphael Pichon.

The disc's title makes strong Wagnerian connections and the first track is a bijou version of the opening of Das Rheingold, with Wagner's sumptuous orchestral canvas shared between harp, four horns, two double basses and 24 women's voices. Its 21 tracks are cleverly grouped into sections, from songs of mermaids and serenades to a final celebration of the river maidens.

But am I the only one to look in vain for mermaids in a rather sentimental setting of Psalm 23 by Schubert? On either side of this, two lustrous a cappella Schumann songs offer darker glimpses into the mysteries of the sea and its supernatural beings.

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Brahms, the eternal bachelor, spent some years conducting the Hamburg Ladies' Choir, for whom he wrote considerable music. One piece, included here, is a rather jolly folkish serenade that could have been a wonderful Womad encore if such a festival existed in 19th century Hamburg.

You'll also hear Brahms curiosities, including an eccentric setting of Shakespeare's Come away Death and a late, ghostly canon, based on the closing song of Schubert's Winterreise song-cycle.

Loveliest of all, though, must be a Schubert Standchen or Serenade. It's not the one everyone knows but a later work, written in the year before his death.

Although I do prefer the original piano to Emmanuel Ceysson's harp, there could not be a finer soloist than mezzo Bernarda Fink, floating expressively over Schubert's carpet of harmonic enchantment, exquisitely woven by the French chamber choir.

Rhinemaidens (Harmonia Mundi)

Verdict:

An exquisite tribute to the music of the daughters of the Rhine