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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (1866)
Lucia Popp (soprano); Thomas Allen (baritone)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Klaus Tennstedt
rec. Royal Albert Hall, London, 26 August 1984 ADD
BBC LEGENDS BBCL42342 [76:41]

 

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Bring together one of my very favourite choral works and a conductor whom I admire greatly and all would seem set fair for a fine release. Well, up to a point but potential purchasers need to be wary.

This present performance is taken from a concert at the Henry Wood Promenade concerts. Around this period Tennstedt made a commercial recording of the Brahms Requiem for EMI, using the LPO and its Choir. For the studio recording, which I have not heard, he had different soloists in the shape of Jessye Norman and Jorma Hynninen.

Ein Deutsches Requiem has been lucky on disc, with several fine recordings. In recent years there have been a number of important versions using period instruments, among which I’d prize particularly Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s 1990 recording (Philips) and also the light, luminous live recording by Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi, 1996). Among traditional, large-scale performances, my personal favourites are the account led by Rudolf Kempe (EMI, 1955) and the magisterial Klemperer reading (also EMI, 1961).

The first thing that struck me when I received this recording was the length. Deducting the applause at the end Tennstedt takes 76:11 whereas Klemperer, not known for his swiftness, requires 69:16. Interestingly, Kempe’s performance lasts 76:07 and it is Gardiner (65:48) and Herreweghe (66:15) to whom Klemperer is closer.

It’s in the first and last movement that Tennstedt and Klemperer differ most profoundly in terms of speeds and duration. The first movement bears the marking “Ziemlich Langsam und mit Ausdruck”, which I believe translates as “Quite slow and with expression”. My vocal score (Peters Edition) has no metronome marking but even so I have great difficulty with the speed adopted by Tennstedt. I make the speed about crotchet = 54, whereas Klemperer is around crotchet = 64 and sounds much more natural. Frankly, Tennstedt’s pace is enervating and the music almost seems becalmed at times. Fortunately the fine, clear singing of the London Philharmonic Choir sustains interest.

Matters improve somewhat in the second movement. Tennstedt gives the slow tread of “Denn alles Fleisch” the appropriate weight. Having said that, however, I’d have liked a bit more gentle lift at “Das gras ist verdorret.” Later in the movement, however, at the lovely passage “So seid nun geduldig”, Tennstedt is more observant of the marking “Etwas bewegter” and I enjoyed the transparent choral tone at this point. The marvellous moment “Aber des Herrn Wort” is marked Un poco sostenuto and surely Tennstedt is too broad, too rhetorical here. However, immediately afterwards the lengthy passage beginning “Die Erlöseten des Herrn” is paced splendidly and when the choir sing “ewige freude!”, with the tenors cutting through as they should, it’s convincingly joyful.

The presence of Thomas Allen is a major attraction. I’m not aware that this admirable baritone ever recorded this piece commercially. If not, then this performance fills a major gap in the catalogue. He sings well, with all the intelligence I’d expect from him. In his first solo, in the third movement, I thought he was particularly effective in the passage beginning “Ach, wie gar nichts”, where he displays firm tone and sings with much expression. Tennstedt handles this movement very well and the fugue with which it concludes is driven along with spirit.

The fourth movement, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen”, is a wonderful lyrical piece and Tennstedt and his players and choir do it well. My only concern was at the passage near the end, “die loben dich immerdar”, which is somewhat jerkily phrased. The following movement brings the serene Lucia Popp centre-stage. Her lovely, expressive performance of this soprano solo reminds us what a loss was her early death.

The sixth movement is the most dramatic in the whole work. From the first entry of the baritone (“Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis”) the tension should start to build quite significantly, even though the music remains fairly quiet. Allen sings well enough but I don’t feel the necessary urgency in the performance overall and that has to be the conductor’s responsibility. Once the vivace section is reached at “Denn es wird die Posaune” all is well. The choir sings with tremendous bite and the drama is properly realised but I feel Tennstedt’s build up to this point is a little weak, which is surprising. The long fugue on “Herr, du bis würdig” has abundant energy and Tennstedt paces it excitingly. This section can sometimes seem a flog for performers and listeners alike but Tennstedt and his team are alive to all the dynamics. That makes such a difference and it enlivens the music, as it should.

The last movement starts off very well but when we get to the atmospheric section at “Ja, der Geist spricht” Tennstedt broadens the tempo. On its own terms his treatment of the following pages is very good but I find Klemperer, who maintains his basic pulse, more purposeful here.

This performance is something of a mixed bag, I think. The execution by singers and orchestra is very good indeed but, as readers will have gathered, I don’t find all of Tennstedt’s speeds convincing. That said, there is too much that is good in the performance to pass it by and I’m glad to have heard it. The recorded sound is perfectly acceptable though I had the impression that the balance favoured the choir somewhat – and I’d like to have heard more of the horns. As usual with this series no texts or translations are provided, a failing which still compromises this BBC Legends series, I’m afraid.

As an admirer of Klaus Tennstedt I’m pleased to add this performance to my collection though it would certainly yield to Klemperer and Gardiner as a library choice for this wonderful work.

John Quinn





 


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