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Johannes BRAHMS (1833–1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (1868)
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano), Hans Hotter (baritone)
Choral Society of the Friends of Music, Vienna
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Grosser Saal der Musikverein, Vienna, 20-22, 27-29 October 1947. ADD
NAXOS 8.111038 [76:13]

“Requiem” is the name of the mass for the dead in the Roman liturgy. Brahms was a protestant and the word ‘deutsches’ (German) indicates that his composition is based on the Lutheran Bible, from which the composer selected passages from both the Old and New Testament as well as the Apocrypha. As opposed to the Latin Requiem his work is more a meditation and in that respect it has some similarities with Fauré’s Requiem.

Brahms’s mother died in 1865 and this may have been the direct reason for him to write a large-scale work in her memory. In December 1867 the first three movements were performed in Vienna but the first official performance was in Bremen in April 1868. This was still without the fifth movement, which was composed during the summer that year. The first complete performance was given in Leipzig in February 1869, conducted by Carl Reinecke.

The first Vienna production was given by The Choral Society of the Friends of Music and this is the choir that Herbert von Karajan engaged for this, the first commercial recording of the work. Vienna by then, in 1947, was still severely affected by the war: the political situation was unstable, the electricity could not always be trusted and the city was divided into four zones by the Allies. With Walter Legge as producer and Douglas Larter as engineer they managed to record the work successfully and considering that it was set down sixty years ago the quality of the sound is indeed impressive. A work of these dimensions ideally requires stereo recording to convey the full impact but listening with headphones, as I regularly do when reviewing, there is enough detail to be heard for full enjoyment of this sombre but warm work. Just two years after the war was over it is also remarkable that musical life had recovered to such an extent. The Vienna Philharmonic play beautifully and though there are occasionally individual voices that protrude from the collective of the choir it is still a homogeneous sound-picture. Most impressive is the singing in the fugal passages, notably in movements three and six, with pinpoint precision and no lack of power. But the beautifully serene fourth movement, Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, is also as reverential as it should be. It is worth noting that Karajan was associated with the choir from the year of this recording, 1947, until his death in 1989, directing them in over 250 performances.

This is primarily a work for choir and orchestra but the two soloists are also important and they lend a special individuality to the work in contrast to the collective of the choir. Hans Hotter’s dramatic declamation is almost on a Wagnerian scale and at this stage of his career his dark baritone was a superb instrument, powerful and beautiful. His timbre at the beginning of the third movement made me reach for the cover to check if this wasn’t after all Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Of course it wasn’t but there is certainly an uncanny likeness. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who six years later was to marry producer Walter Legge, was at this stage still a lyric soprano. She sings her solo, Ihr habt nur Traurigkeit, simply and with vulnerable tone.

Listening to Ein deutsches Requiem is always an act of contemplation and reverence, from the sombre opening via the dramatic climax of the double fugue of the sixth movement and back to the atmosphere of the opening. In a collection of great choral music there should be at least one recording in modern sound – and there is a wide choice. Some listeners think Sinopoli’s DG recording is erratic but I have always liked it, Solti on Decca with Kiri Te Kanawa a wonderful soprano soloist may be a safer bet, and Karajan recorded it on three further occasions, his 1964 version with Gundula Janowitz and Eberhard Wächter as soloists possibly the best. And then there is always Klemperer with Schwarzkopf again – and Fischer-Dieskau. The present version belongs in this select company and should be an attractive complement to one of the others – not only for historical freaks.

There are no texts but Malcolm Walker provides historical notes, from which I have drawn some of the information above, a ‘synopsis’ and biographies. At Naxos price this disc gives much music for the money.

Göran Forsling

See also Review by Colin Clarke September BARGAIN OF THE MONTH




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