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Johannes Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem

Johannes Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem


Conductors discussed on this page:

  • Claudio Abbado (DG)
  • Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi)
  • Otto Klemperer (EMI)
  • George Solti (London)
  • Herbert von Karajan
  • Uncommendable historic performances
  • Robert Shaw (Telarc)
  • Uncommendable historically informed performances

  • This work, completed in 1868, was the breakthrough piece in which Johannes Brahms, the young piano lion, created a large-scale orchestral-and-choral work and moved into his artistic maturity. The work was long and painful in its genesis, being inspired initially in 1865 by his mother's death, and moved forward by his friend Robert Schumann's attempted suicide. At least one movement was discarded, and recycled in the first piano concerto, and the soprano-solo movement was added in 1868 to help balance gloom with tenderness. The product is Brahms's longest single work, and a masterful summary of all the curious contradictions at work in Brahms's mind. It is deeply religious, offering solace to the bereaved with texts from the Bible, and painting a series of dramatic pictures, from the beauty of the Lord's dwelling place to man's insignificance before God, to man's redemption by faith. But at the same time, it is a humanist, secular work: Brahms chose texts from the Bible, rather than traditional liturgical chant, and used his vernacular German, rather than Latin. (He almost called it a "Human Requiem," and one wonders if he would have encouraged vernacular-language performances in non-German lands.) His texts dwell at length on God, but make no mention of Christ. He depicts the Last Trumpet and death swallowed in victory in boisterously loud fashion (the orchestra makes a particularly chilling depiction of the earth trembling and quaking open), but there is no mention of Judgment or eternal damnation. Brahms works at once on his customary, exquisitely detailed miniaturist scale, but also uses thematic repetition and finely detailed scoring to lend dramatic and logical unity on a grand scale. And he borrows from the ideas of masters of the past (Heinrich Sch¨tz for text selection and methods of choral writing; Beethoven for the dissonance-fugue transition of the finale of the 9th symphony) to create a wholly new means of choral expression, one which would influence requiems for generations to come.

    Posted to: rec.music.classical.recordings
    Subject: Brahms's German Requiem
    Date: Tue, 27 May 1997

    Patrick Rose asked:

    I went into Barnes and Noble today to get a recording of Brahm's Requiem and found that there were at least twelve different recordings. Any suggestions on which recording of the requiem to purchase?

    This is probably more than you want to know, but ...

    Unfortunately, I have yet to hear a no-holds-barred runaway favorite in the Brahms Requiem. It seems kind of odd that this should be the case; Brahms was very detailed in his instructions about how to handle phrasing, dynamics, use of staccato and tenuto markings, etc., but many performances utterly fail to observe these markings. The ones that do, don't always manage to bring off Brahms's extraordinary effects in a convincing fashion. There must be something in the electricity of a live performance that I haven't heard captured on disc. Here are some thoughts on a few that I've heard:

  • Claudio Abbado (DG)
    Among the modern-sound performances, I think I'd cite Claudio Abbado's DG effort and Philippe Herreweghe's period instruments performance on Harmonia Mundi as my current favorites. Abbado's recording, with the Berlin Philharmonic, some Swedish choruses, and Cheryl Studer among the soloists, is well sung, attentively played, makes no overtly bold sweeping statements but also makes few miscalculations. Definitely middle-of-the-road, but a solid middle-of-the-road.

  • Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi)
    Herreweghe's periodist performance leads the periodist pack for me. He pays fairly close attention to the dynamic and expressive markings in the score, which pays off well. The choir sings with discipline and breathtakingly clean, vibrato-free sound, with a curious sort of bloom in the soprano section which grabbed my attention. The soloists, I'm afraid, didn't grab me 100%, and the orchestra can come across as a trifle underpowered in the key climactic moments. So it isn't as much of a success for me as his Missa Solemnis, but still a very fine recording.

  • Otto Klemperer (EMI)
    Otto Klemperer's EMI recording is frequently recommended in this group. I gave it a few careful re-listens while we were rehearsing it earlier this year, and I have to say I'm growing cold on it now. The orchestra is fabulous, arguably doing the finest accompaniment that I've heard in this piece. But the choir suffers badly from poor ensemble (presumably they were less used to Klemperer's jagged style than the Philharmonia Orchestra) and a vibrato-rich sound that wrecks most of Brahms's exquisite harmonies. The soloists, to my mind, are also unaccepable: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is a bit too precious for my taste in music of naive, innocent comfort, while Fischer-Dieskau seems to be trying too hard to sound like a powerhouse basso profundo instead of the lyric baritone that he does so well. The orchestra is still almost good enough to warrant a recommendation on that strength alone, but definitely not a first pick for singing.

  • George Solti (London)
    Georg Solti's Chicago SO recording on London is how I first got to know this work. Kiri te Kanawa and Bernd Weikl are both wonderful, and the choir manages to be an old-style vibrato-heavy group and yet maintain a precision and ensemble which is impressive. The orchestra does some marvelously detailed accompaniment, and ranges from gorgeously lyrical to powerfully thundering. Moreover, Solti manages to sustain energy through ponderously slow tempi. This sometimes has some glorious results, though -- try the outer movements, which lose some pulse but are breathtakingly beautiful at a slow pace. Unfortunately, this forced it onto two discs (this may have changed in the recent reissue).

  • Herbert von Karajan
    Herbert von Karajan has made at least three recordings of the Requiem. Unfortunately, DG seemed to be hopeless at miking choirs for him (though maybe it's by HvK's choice), so that they're swamped by the orchestra, a fatal mistake in this most choral of Romantic pieces. Still, I'd give a listen to his EMI recording, made in postwar Vienna with committed singing and playing from an orchestra (Vienna PO) and choir which had just experienced the horrors of war. Schwarzkopf is less fussy, and more effective here, and Hans Hotter provides a stentorian, compelling baritone solo. Monophonic sound (and 78 rpm discs to boot?) but worth listening through. On mid-price EMI.

  • Not recommended: historic performances
    What about the not-recommended-at-all list? Well, from the historic front, there are at least two Furtwaengler recordings. I recently heard a Stockholm recording, which featured a choir so desperately out of tune it almost becomes funny. However, the orchestra does play compellingly, which makes it more the pity. A similarly wobbly, massive-sounding choir mars Bruno Walter's studio effort for Columbia. Haven't heard Toscanini, though some reports have sapped any curiosity from me.

  • Robert Shaw (Telarc)
    Another frequently recommended disc is Robert Shaw's Atlanta SO recording on Telarc. A few choral conductors that I know swear by this recording, too, and no doubt, it's beautifully sung and executed. Arleen Auger provides wonderful soprano work, too. But for some reason, I fail to be moved by this performance; it just seems too interpretively neutral and cautious for my taste. YMMV, of course.

  • Not recommended: historically informed performances
    There are also at least two other period instrument recordings. Norrington's EMI recording (again, for me) is an uninvolving, sterile disaster. The much-praised Gardiner is another story entirely. He has recorded it on Philips, and the virtues of the performance are crisp, clean textures, and a deliberate effort to clear away the patina of the Romantic style of conducting, the hazy misty sound that one often gets on older recordings, in favor of an older, Schuetz-inspired sound. There's plenty of drama, not least in the transition to the various fugues, where a gradual accelerando and deafening crescendo leave a real visceral thrill to the proceedings. Unfortunately (again for me), Gardiner seems to have thrown out a little of the baby with the bathwater, making the transition trick into something of an auditory gimmick and rendering the singing bland and unexpressive in his drive to expunge any hint of Romanticism. It's also unfortunate that the recorded sound is muddy and indistinct, making it hard to appreciate the inner voices and textures that Gardiner struggles to bring out. It's an interesting experiment, but not ultimately successful for me.
  • There are a few major ones that I have not heard yet, including Rudolf Kempe's EMI recording (falls somewhere between Karajan '47 and Klemperer, I think), Sinopoli, Sawallisch, and Masur. But one way or another, the perfect German Requiem doesn't exist yet, at least for me. One needs a mix of power and delicacy (particularly in "So seid nun geduldig," which seems heavy even in Gardiner's hands). Herreweghe comes closer than anyone else for me, but even that would be an unfortunate compromise in some ways.

    Submitted with the usual IMHO's, YMMV's, and apologies in advance for logorrheic excesses.

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    Last updated: June 22, 2003 by James C.S. Liu

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