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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45
Kathleen Battle, soprano
Håkan Hagegård, baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus/Margaret Hillis
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/James Levine
Recorded 5-6 July, 1983 in Orchestra Hall, Chicago [DDD]
BMG-RCA 82876 60861 2 [71:03]

This is a recording that is now in at least its third incarnation, as RCA continues to follow in the pattern of all major labels and rely on its extensive back catalogue to keep its name before the public. Would that they would go back twenty to thirty years further in their great vault of musical history and give us digitized editions of some of the wealth they possess. Fortunately, this is a very fine performance, and it is not hurting anything to have it remain on the shelves.

Perhaps the large choral and orchestral works such as the Requiem mass by Verdi, the German Requiem of Brahms, and Carmina Burana of Orff are some of the most difficult to both perform live and record. The vocal forces needs must be so massive to combat the large orchestras that it requires due diligence indeed to get clear enunciation and a warm, unified singing tone at the same time. Many recordings of Brahms’ monumental score become mere shout fests, in which the chorus, in the case of the Brahms especially the tenors, scream their fool heads off.

Fortunately for Chicagoans and for listeners around the world, there was Margaret Hillis. Ms. Hillis, who for many years marshaled the CSO chorus into one of the finest choirs of its type in the world, was part Grand Dame and part Überkommandant and would tolerate nothing less than complete intelligibility of the text and a tone that was flawlessly tuned and carefully shaped for phrase.

This performance is a near perfect combination of conductorial vision, excellent choral singing, and fine soloists and of course, one of the world’s finest orchestras.

Kathleen Battle, whose reputation as a singer has suffered lately more because of her reportedly outlandish behaviour than her ability to spin a note, is in fine form here. She soars easily and peacefully above the orchestra with the glowing, radiant tone that made her famous now more than thirty years ago. Mr. Hagegård, whose voice can often come across with more steel in it than passion, brings off a rewardingly intense and dramatic performance.

James Levine’s sense of Brahms’ deeply felt conviction is evident here, particularly in his choices of tempi. The composer wanted this work to be uplifting, and although there are certainly moments of powerful drama (the second movement, for example), Levine shies away from making any of this music dirge like. Rather, he chooses to move the score along to its comforting end at a rather swift pace.

Although I would not say that this was the very best recording of the German Requiem (I save that honor for John Eliot Gardiner’s fantastic account on Philips), this is certainly amongst my top ten. Recommended.

Kevin Sutton

 



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