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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein Deutsches Requiem (1868) [60.03]
Geistliches Lied (1856) [4.36]
Clare Seaton (soprano)
Colin Campbell (baritone)
The Vasari Singers/Jeremy Backhouse,
Jeremy Filsell and Roderick Chadwick (piano duet).
rec. St. Jude’s Church, Hampstead, London, U.K., 24-26 October 2003. DDD
GUILD GMCD7302 [64.39]

Brahms' German Requiem, beloved of English choral societies, is such a big piece in every respect that one would expect a performance with piano accompaniment to be doomed to failure. Yet it was the composer himself who agreed to his publisher's request to provide the transcription for piano duet used in the present recording. What is transcribed, however, is not simply the orchestral part, but the vocal parts too, making clear its purpose to allow access to this remarkable work in the absence of singers. Its use as an accompaniment to the choral version seems at least questionable, and the fact that it was given in this way at its first English performance, in a private home, is not really a convincing argument in its favour.
The present recording appears to be the third in this form. The playing of Jeremy Filsell and Roderick Chadwick is beyond praise, but the arrangement gives them few opportunities to shine. The overall colour is dark, darker indeed than the orchestral version where Brahms, not a composer we associate with orchestral brilliance, demonstrates a remarkable mastery of the use of the orchestra to bring out contrapuntal lines. The uninspiring nature of the arrangement perhaps explains in part why the present pair are in no way outclassed by the altogether more illustrious names of Brigitte Engerer and Boris Berezovsky (playing on two pianos) on the rival disc given by the French chamber choir Accentus conducted by Laurence Equilbey (Na´ve).
If one reason for giving the work in this version is to try to recreate the intimate, chamber music atmosphere of the first English performance, one other advantage is certainly that the choral writing is presented with greater clarity. Jeremy Backhouse seems carefully to have rethought the work so as to place it in this different context and his excellent choir follow his lead. Tempi are faster than we are used to almost throughout. For the first movement, for example, Backhouse takes just over eight minutes, the fastest of any other reading I have for comparison and faster by almost two minutes than Klemperer's classic (and irreplaceable) reading on EMI Great Recordings of the Century. Not content with a fairly rapid overall tempo Backhouse even presses forward impulsively in one or two places, though in this movement at least the more inward aspects of the music are not unduly neglected. The tempo of the second movement is in line with those chosen by Gardiner or Masur, but the choir's tone could be darker at the outset, and in spite of a well-managed crescendo in the accompaniment the horns are cruelly missed in the passage leading to the loud, second statement of the theme. The well-known and well-loved fourth movement, "How lovely are thy dwellings", is also very fast, too fast for me, I'm afraid, lacking weight and meaning at this tempo, and with even the hint of a waltz lurking behind the notes. Klemperer really is the benchmark here: just listen to the multiple suspensions at the climax, and the delicious staccato woodwind figures which follow to know how it really should be done. I found the fast section of the sixth movement even more disappointing. Tempo indications for Brahms' own version of "The trumpet shall sound" include Vivace, but the music sounds very rushed here. The opening, too, of this same movement, where St Paul's words to the Hebrews "…for here we have no permanent home, but we are seekers after the city which is to come" has a jauntiness quite at odds with the sentiments of the text.
The two soloists sing well and any decent choral society would be delighted to welcome them into their midst. On record, however, for repeated listening, one needs rather more. Colin Campbell's voice is rather dry as recorded and his reading of the third movement is severe rather than supplicating. Claire Seaton sings beautifully, with excellent vocal control and intonation but her reading lacks the intimate, comforting quality one hopes for in the movement which Brahms added later following the death of his mother. And given the number of times piano, dolce and espressivo figure on the pages of this movement much of it is simply too loud. The recording brings all the performers well forward, somewhat neutralising the church acoustic. This, too, is probably deliberate, but it certainly does not help the soloists.
One no longer wants or expects a marmoreal German Requiem, but this one is positively brisk in places, and the lack of weight is ultimately unsatisfying. Kurt Masur's performance, live in 1995 with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (Teldec), shows how the music can be kept moving, bringing warmth and comfort but retaining the work's essential gravity. And the previously mentioned French reading is also outstanding, Accentus even more accomplished than the excellent Vasari Singers, more satisfying soloists and the conductor's tempi more in line with accepted notions. If you must have the piano accompaniment I think this is a better choice.
The programme is completed by a reading of the beautiful Geistliches Lied of 1856 which, perversely perhaps, I found much more pleasing. The Vasari Singers and their conductor ensure that the final Amen of this highly canonic piece flowers as it should, their singing as passionate and disciplined as any admirer of Brahms' choral music could wish for.
William Hedley




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