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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein Deutsches Requiem Op.45 (1869-1870)
Susan Gritton (soprano), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone),
Evgenia Rubinova (piano I), José Gallardo (piano II)
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
Stephen Cleobury (director)
rec. 22-25 April 2006, Chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge.
EMI CLASSICS 3 66948 2 [65:14]

 

Like Rossini’s ‘Petite Messe Solennelle’ this ‘pocket’ version of Brahms’ grand masterpiece would appear to be a godsend to classical music producers on a tight budget, yet this seems one of only two two-piano versions currently available on CD. Such arrangements were a staple for composers in the 19th century. With a piano in every cultivated drawing-room this was the way in which most people encountered most of their music, or had the opportunity for listening to it in their own home. With the origins of the piece dating back to 1854, the gestation period up to the completion of the arrangement on this recording was a long one. Brahms had completed a two-hand piano arrangement for publisher Johann Rieter-Biedermann in 1868 and wrestled with the four-hand arrangement thereafter, only throwing in the towel in 1870 when he requested that his name should be removed from the title page. No doubt to a certain extent mindful of the financial rewards to be gained from such an enterprise, Brahms’ high standards meant that he was also reluctant to pass the work onto others. Nonetheless, after 16 years of tinkering I can imagine that he had had enough of the thing, and who can blame him.

With the acoustic of Jesus College chapel helping the somewhat ecclesiastical, unmistakeably English sound of the Choir of King’s College this was always going to be less of a high-romantic performance than many of the orchestral versions around. Brahms’ setting is of course not of the liturgical missa pro defunctis but a more humanist selection of German-language Bible passages, avoiding any mention of Christ. In his booklet note Nicholas Marston points out that the reduction in forces might go some way toward giving the piece more of a human scale, and there is a defence of this choice in the historical reference to the British premiere performance using this instrumentation in the Wimpole Street home of Lady Thompson in 1871. We can be grateful not to have been given this level of authenticity - Ein Deutsches Requiem on the living room carpet, but raising the profile of this version might encourage more choirs to take up the work.

In fact, missing an entire orchestra has less effect that one might imagine. Kings College Choir has a gorgeous sound at its best, and with the two pianos given a suitably recessed balance there are no nasty jangling edges to contend with. There are one or two moments when I found myself stabbing at the rewind button: what is going on at 09:49 into Denn alles Fleisch ...? It’s like one of the little boys has wandered off at the back to find a toffee, still singing. I’m probably being overly picky, but one or two voices do pop out of the choral texture here and there, sometimes with a little lack of control in higher moments, or just not quite blending with the choral colour. I would have preferred more accuracy in those tricky little motifs in Herr, lehre doch mich as well. I do love the King’s College sound however, and these are very small points: my humanist sense of tolerance was never pushed very far.    

Hanno Müller-Brachmann has a slightly doloroso vocal colour which suits the music well, and his sensitivity to the text is very good – tragic and vulnerable or defiant where required, without being overly dramatic or operatic. He is well matched with the pure sounding soprano of Susan Gritton, whose tone is also a little darker than your average flighty coloratura. Evgenia Rubinova and José Gallardo deserve a mention as a superb piano duo, playing up a storm in Denn wir haben… and with a responsive touch throughout what must be a lengthy and demanding task for any musician. 

There only seems to be one other recording in the current catalogue with this instrumentation, on the Naïve label conducted by Laurence Equilby and boasting Boris Berezowsky as one of the pianists. I don’t know this version, but suspect King’s College might win over the amateur choir on the Naïve recording. I must say I have enjoyed this version of Ein Deutsches Requiem. If you know the work but have been put off by its Teutonic heaviness in the past this may very well hold the answer to your unspoken prayers. Two pianos will never have the absolute power, variety and colour of a full orchestra, but neither do they hold all of those Beethovenian associations. This is, in general, a well produced performance and an excellent recording which can safely be recommended to aficionados and curious newcomers alike.

Dominy Clements    

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