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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein Deutsches Requiem Op. 45 (1857-68)
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Götterdämmerung (1876) – Siegfried's Rhine Journey
Tristan und Isolde (1865) – Prelude; Liebestod
Evelyn Lear (soprano); Thomas Stewart (baritone) (Brahms)
Orchestre Philharmonique et Choeurs de l'ORTF/Karl Richter (Brahms), Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (Wagner)
rec. Salle Playel, Paris, 4 April 1964 (Brahms); Paris, 20 June 1965 (Wagner).
NTSC 4:3: Colour Code BW: Disc Format DVD-9: Sound Format LPCM Mono 2.0 (PCM dual mono): Menu Languages: English, French, German, Spanish
EMI CLASSIC ARCHIVE DVB 38846093 [102:48]


Brahms has seldom been an unambiguously admired presence in Parisian concert halls. In 1964 when Karl Richter arrived to conduct the German Requiem he must have been fretful at the nature of the orchestral and choral responsiveness that awaited him. It was, to be frank, variable. The big choir is enthusiastic though inclined to be rather blustery though the orchestra is on better behaviour all round.

Camera direction of big choral works seems to have been in its infancy in the French capital. Despite Truffaut and the denizens of the Nouvelle Vague the director and crew of this epic opus seem to be in the dark – cinematographers were sorely needed on that night in April 1964. Camera pans are unsteady and verging sometimes on the shambolic. The shots of the choir pick out individual group members, linger, withdraw, and then shudder laterally to take in, say, the basses. At one point I noticed two of the men share a surreptitious joke – well, at least they enjoyed it.

Richter’s tempi were of the traditional-ponderous type. To unsympathetic auditors the first movement will seem like an agony – marmoreal and sculpted from living, oozing heavy clay. But his view is consistent and perceptive; if you enjoy the heavy and heroic approach you will perhaps admire Richter’s way with Brahms. I can’t say I enjoyed it in the way that I enjoy Richter’s Bach but that’s another matter. The slow and the inexorable are constants of the performance. Fortunately we also have the husband and wife team of Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart. She’s inclined to be book-bound, whereas he’s in his best stentorian pose, barrel-chested and quizzing the audience. Both sing splendidly; he’s steady, warm but yielding and affecting. He shows the virtues of singing straight here – something one or two of the present crop of native German singers have not appreciated in this work. He doesn’t over-inflect or subject the line to affected colouration. Lear is similarly convincing, despite her reliance on the score. She’s eloquent and avoids mannered characterisation – no crooning here; several of her elders failed to avoid this trap.

Richter remains powerfully in control. He smiles once and takes a couple of handkerchief breaks – well deserved in the heat of the lights.

There is more however. The Orchestre Philharmonique et Choeurs de l'ORTF in full rig but without audience plays Wagner under Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt. His expansive gestures encourage the orchestra to give of their very best. It’s difficult to take one’s eyes off Schmidt-Isserstedt so athletic and debonair is he. The excerpts reveal a Wagner conductor of the highest gifts. The camera work is unobtrusive here though there is very occasional picture degradation.

As before in this new batch of releases the essay is integral to the DVD; the booklet thus houses only track details. As I complained in my previous review of this latest batch of releases I’d rather read a text than squint at it on screen, clutching at directional arrows to turn “pages.” If this is the new tomorrow I want yesterday.

This is a difficult DVD to evaluate. Technical frailties and camera limitations lessen the impact of the Brahms, but it does preserve Richter’s steady-as-she-goes approach to the Requiem. Schmidt-Isserstedt footage is rare and always to be savoured.

Jonathan Woolf 

See also Review by Colin Clarke



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