Let’s get the stupid stuff out of the way first. This
DVD has no text or translation. I looked at the menu when I first loaded
the disc, then looked again, but no; TDK doesn’t even offer the original
German, either in the slim booklet or as a subtitle. It can’t be a production
error, as the menu screen looks properly and attractively designed,
so some bright sparks in TDK’s production department need their heads
bashing together if they think this is the way to sell Classical DVDs.
That said, those with German should find subtitles
unnecessary as diction is good throughout. Even so, Ein deutsches Requiem
isn’t the most obvious candidate for home video. There are only so many
times you can watch a static line of sopranos with their mouths open,
and the director also seems to have a thing about cello bows. Of course,
as soon as Barbara Bonney gets up the camera knows where to go, and
it stays there almost throughout 'Ich habe nun ein Traurigkeit', though
the stony faced altos behind her are a bit off-putting. Terfel's voice
that night had the bloom which it has lost of late, though I think he
could have been even more sensitive to the text.
For myself, I could happily gaze upon the neo-Baroque
glories of the Goldene Saale for 80 minutes. I’d be even happier if
the camera gave Abbado more attention. He has always been one of the
most expressive and attractive conductors in concert, with a balletic
grace and economy to his movements that is frequently reflected in the
way musicians play for him, without ever reducing his role to choreography.
Every gesture tells, and if you’re a fan of Abbado’s conducting anyway,
this is a must-see, if not a must-buy.
Many have never warmed to the flip side of this economy.
Accusations of coolness or uninvolvement have often been levelled at
Abbado (though I suspect that they result from exclusive consideration
of his studio recordings, many of which are not nearly so successful
as his live traversals of the same works). Even without watching the
smile on his face, however, you can tell he loves this work from the
way every phrase is caressed and given its own weight.
Musical and visual direction reach a particularly harmonious
resolution during the transition to the final fugue of 'Herr, lehre
doch mich'. We are directed from the tip of Abbado’s baton to the splendour
of the Musikverein’s ceiling, panning down the Goldene Saale to reveal
the panoply of performers, then to Abbado again, ever relaxed, mouthing
the words and coaxing the chorus to some of the loveliest singing this
demanding music has received. The whole work is, along with the Missa
Solemnis, the toughest imaginable test of stamina for the chorus in
the standard repertoire. It is the greatest compliment to their ability
and to Abbado’s ever relaxed shoulders that after the even more involved
fugue at the end of 'Denn wir haben', the sopranos are able to float
their long forte line at the start of 'Selig sind die Toten' with impeccable
intonation and a sure feel for the centre of the phrase.
I suspect that the veiled quality of the recording
has as much to do with the Berliners sound and Abbado’s restrained approach
to the piece as to any technological manipulation. I found it puzzling
at first and tried unsuccessfully to twiddle knobs to give it more brightness,
but quickly accustomed myself. The text itself so frequently suggests
a view of death through a glass darkly, from the perspective of the
living, that a feeling of being at one remove from the music is welcome
in this case.