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Brahms German Requiem Recordings

Posted by dubaisingers.com on August 13, 2018 at 5:20 PM

Hello Singers,

I happen to own a few recordings of Brahms ein Deutsches Requiem and as some of you may be shopping for a recording before term starts, I thought I’d share my thoughts. There is, of course, never a right or wrong in these things - just subjective opinions that may or may not help your purchases. I would of course welcome your thoughts – please feel free to comment below.

I bought my first recording of this work when I was still a teenager. It was the Previn recording with Ambrosian Singers and RPO, for no better reason than the fact that it was the cheapest one on the shelf that day. Actually, I had wanted a Karajan recording (I was such a Karajan groupie in my youth!) but the DG discs were, as always, full-priced and it was a luxury that had to come much later. Like most people, the first recording is always the one that stays with you. For example, to this day, I often prefer the darker, more muscular sound like that of Samuel Ramey to the lighter baritones that are found in most other recordings.

The German Requiem is, of course, a rather grand piece – it was in fact Brahms’s longest composition (that is if you don’t buy into some academics’ suggestion that the symphonies are somehow joined – utter tosh!). To me, tempi is perhaps the most essential ingredient in sustaining such large structures. I don’t mean the speed of individual movements, but the relationship between them, how they relate to each other to create a sense of wholeness and equilibrium. In this, Klemperer, as always in Brahms, is unsurpassed. Listening to his recording with the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra (EMI) is unquestionably an “experience”. There is a sense of wholeness not found anywhere else, a performance that is a giant arc from the very first note to the end. Adding to this, the sheer pleasure of hearing Fishy-Dishy and Schwartzkopf has to make this a strong contender for the best recording for many.

A few years ago, I would have been burnt at the stake as a heretic for saying this, but here it is: I prefer Hermann Prey’s baritone to Fischer-Dieskau’s, and his rather matter-of-fact rendition in Klemperer’s 1956 live recording with Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester (ICA Classics) is, to me, at least equal to Fishy. In contrast, his much freer, rougher edged and emotionally desperate version in Lorin Maazel’s recording with the New Philharmonia Chorus (Sony) is utterly compelling in an entirely different way. And Ileana Contrubas is stunning in this Maazel recording, although I think she was a little past her prime here – they should have recorded her around the time of her Glyndebourne Susanna in the early 70’s– just vocal gold! However, where the soloists shined, the rest did not. I find Maazel’s reading of the piece rather generic and failing to inspire. Surprisingly, this is also true, for me, of Simon Rattle’s recording with Berlin Philharmonic (EMI) which is quite unlike many of his other recordings. That said, this Rattle recording won loads of awards when it came out, so what do I know?

The exact opposite can be said of Solti’s recording with Chicago (RCA). Moments of intense climax can be found all over the place. My issue, as with much of Solti, is that there are just so many climaxes. Great for Classic FM’s snippets show, but ultimately unsatisfying as a whole when listening to the piece in its entirity. For a more organic performance, try Giulini’s fine recording with Wiener Philharmoniker(DG). Whilst occasionally rather indulgent in terms of speed – one of the slower ones, Guillini really makes you wait and live with the magnificent tension they generate. The fact that the wonderful Barbara Bonney sounds breathtakingly angelic helps too! Equally masterful is Tennstadt (EMI) with with London Phil, but I find Jessye Norman a bit heavy – magnificent though she is, she’s simply the wrong fach for this piece for my taste.

Karajan recorded this piece several times. Jose Van Dam in Karajan’s 1976 recording with Berlin Philharmonic (EMI) is a real lesson in how to sing with a proper seamless legato, which elevates the process of vocal-production to pure artistry. The Berlin sound is clearly on display here, and the brilliance of the sound is quite staggering – sometimes a bit too staggering, as it occasionally overwhelms the magnificent Wiener Singverein. His later and last recording (DG), also with Van Dam as soloist demonstrates an equally luxurious string sound which so clearly epitomizes the “Karajan sound”.

There are conductors, and there are choral conductors. Recordings by Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi) and Eliot Gardiner (Decca) are both brilliant. But I would recommend Robert Shaw (telarc) if you are after some supreme choral singing. The choir had clearly been put through their paces and every choral detail carefully considered. Certainly, there is not a vowel or consonant that is wasted. If I had been from the cast of Gavin and Stacey, I would probably describe this recording as “very tidy”!

Lastly, I would turn to Herbert Kegel’s recording with Leipzig Radio Chorus and Symphony Orchestra (Capriccio) which is probably my favourite. I find this a deeply personal reading, with ample flexibility within the grand structure. Yet, these moments of liberties do not disrupt the overall architecture – somehow, they just seem right. This is music-making that is truly inspired. This organic recording, not without little blemishes, is sincere and heartfelt from beginning to end, providing that sense of hope and comfort that makes ein Deutsches Requiem utterly different from the traditional requiems by other composers. How sad it was that Kegel could not find this same transcendent beauty and contentment in his own life, for he committed suicide not long after this marvelous recording.

Howard

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