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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).
DVD 9.4:3 Black and White. NTSC
EMI CLASSIC ARCHIVE DVB 38846093 [102:48]

This is an interesting DVD, although by no means the star pick of the EMI Classic Archive series. Yet before I get to the music itself, it is worthwhile discussing the presentation. Inside the DVD box is a folded insert, with a tiny directive at the bottom to visit a website for a four-language introduction to the programme. Not everyone is web-compliant, so there will be purchasers left out in the cold, especially as this is only revealed once one gets inside the product - most shops use shrink-wrap to protect the boxes these days. When the disc finally gets inside the machine, you may notice there are no subtitles for the German text of the Requiem - in the original language or otherwise. Nor are these included in the web essay alluded to above.
Nevertheless, there is enough here to justify a purchase. At the time of performance, we are told, the German Requiem was relatively little known in France. Evelyn Lear, on the other hand, was very well known for her performances in Berg's Lulu! Things begin rather inauspiciously with an awkward camera zoom to the cellos and a rather dark picture; yet the shots of Karl Richter, with his very eloquent, clear beat, are most instructive. Furthermore, Richter captures the autumnal nature of the first movement to perfection.
The unstoppable tread of 'Denn alles Fleisch' is very well handled, with Richter's grasp of the movement's structure to the fore. The tempo moves, yet the mood is portentous; the late fugue is grand in style - although the men could sing out more.
Surprisingly, Thomas Stewart is rather lacking in vocal depth. You notice it less if you watch him, for his bearing is properly noble. One needs a Hans Hotter here, really. Some truly dramatic orchestral interjections later mitigate some congestion and scrappy choral contributions.
If there is one reason to acquire this Requiem it is the radiant soprano of Evelyn Lear. She is nothing short of miraculous in her purity. Her voice has a slightly bright edge, yet she can open out her tone to deliver real emotion.
The three sections of the sixth movement are tracked as one single entity. Stewart excels himself here and it is the chorus that disappoints when it asks 'Death, where is thy victory?', showing a distinct lack of defiance. The finale contains an unfortunate brass split close to the end.
The fillers are actually more interesting than the main fare on this occasion. A distinguished-looking Schmidt-Isserstedt conducts Wagner to an empty hall. It is fascinating to watch his large yet expressive beat encouraging his players towards a huge climax and keeping the tension through Wagner's charged rests. The Tristan excerpts fare just as well. The Prelude is sensitively, even lovingly, phrased by the strings. The picture threatens to darken out on occasion, but it is worth persevering. Ensemble is not as tight as it could be at the opening of the - orchestra only - Liebestod, but it too is worth hearing for some beautifully warm-toned brass chording and a sense of unhurried radiance.
The question, then, is where one's priorities lie. If they are to hear Evelyn Lear, the choice is clear; ditto Schmidt-Isserstedt in Wagner. But if one wishes to experience revelatory Brahms, perhaps it would be better to look elsewhere.
Colin Clarke


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