Brahms: A German Requiem, London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/André Previn with Harolyn Blackwell (soprano) & David Wilson-Johnson (baritone), Barbican 18 June 2000 (MB)
The Brahms Requiem is not often played in London, partly because it is difficult to bring off successfully. It has seven slow movements and that can mean, in the wrong performance, that it often lacks drama. This need not be the case - as André Previn's LSO performance clearly showed. Brahms' great choral work may not scale the same heights as Verdi's, most notably in the solo writing, but for a great chorus the Brahms offers a wonderful challenge not so evident in Verdi's Requiem. It is rather like climbing Everest from different directions. The terrain may be different, the challenges may be different, but the summit remains equally achievable and the results are always worth waiting for, different though they are.
Previn's achievement was to give this performance an inexorable momentum. As far as timings go, it clocked in at just 65 minutes, almost five minutes faster than Klemperer [EMI (CDC7 47238-2 (studio)(nla)] and almost twenty faster than Celibidache [EMI CDS5568432 (live)] £25. It did not seem fast at all. It felt just right.
The phrasing in this performance was impeccable. There was a deep darkness to the first movement (even without violins) aided partly by beautifully balanced pianissimo passages on cellos, violas and basses. The closing fugato of the third movement, with its Baroque overtones, proved mighty, as did the close of the sixth movement with chorus and orchestra blazing mercurially. The final movement seemed to rise cosmically, so celestial was the ending.
The soprano has only one movement in which she sings and Harolyn Blackwell certainly gave us a sumptuously sung performance of the passages from John and Isaiah. Hers is not a big voice, but she phrases beautifully, even if her German diction is muffled and virtually unintelligible. David Wilson-Johnson has no such problems, delivering echt German text with bell-like clarity and a Heldontenorish ringing tone. The Chorus was majestic throughout.
This performance was being taped for release on the LSO Live label (I hope they remove the irritating coughs and attendant rustlings), the first non Colin Davis concert to be given this honour. Released in September, I will be interested to revisit this performance which had excitement and drama in abundance.
Brahms: A German Requiem Recommended Recordings
There are many recordings of Brahms' Requiem, some of which should be avoided, including performances by Karajan (his best is on video/laserdisc), Levine and Tennstedt to name three.
Recommendable versions, however, include.Previn's with the RPO on Teldec (9031 75862-2)(nla), radiantly sung and powerfully played, particularly in the great fugato passages and Rudolf Kempe's, incandescent on a mono 1955 version with Grümmer and Fisher-Dieskau (EMI CDH7 64705-2) £8.50. Klemperer, on EMI (CDM5669032)£8.50 is in many ways unmatched, with Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau and a Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus on staggering form. It remains the best sung version on disc, and the recording has worn its years well.
Two worth considering for their sheer individuality are Celibidache's on EMI [EMI CDS5568432 (live)] £25 and Furtwängler's Lucerne recording on the French Furtwängler Society discs (SWF 971-972) . Celibidache's performance hangs fire in the first movement, but the climaxes and fugatos are awesome, as well as overpowering. It is the most reverential account I have ever heard, and is intensely moving despite its wayward tempi. The Furtwängler is superlative and worth seeking out. It has an embroidered incandescence which is uniquely his style and has magnificent soloists in Schwarzkopf and Hotter.
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