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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein Deutsches Requiem (1868)
Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)
Thomas Quasthoff (baritone)
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle
rec. Philharmonie, Berlin, 26-29 October 2006
EMI CLASSICS 3 65393 2 [67:07]


My recent experiences of Rattle’s Brahms on disc have not been propitious. His D minor concerto performance with Zimerman was a fitful and ultimately disappointing reading (see review).  The fabric of indulgence and precious expressive devices which destabilised that performance led me to fear for the Requiem. But I must say that in this latest release, recorded live – though as is now commonplace in these kinds of things one would never know it – Rattle’ s command of Brahmsian rhetoric seems to me altogether in a different league.

I would concede that he still fails to resist an element of beautifying. There is evidence of the cultivation of momentary beauties as early as Selig sind die da Leid tragen. But of ancillary metrical manipulation there is little evidence. The pacing of the whole work, and on a paragraph by paragraph basis, is thoroughly convincing. One can note that in Denn alles Fleisch Rattle prefers a less dramatically etched, less rhythmically incisive, rhythmic profile to the classic Klemperer approach. But they are in fact not dissimilar in some respects. Rattle keeps his brass in check here and smoothes out some of the rhythmic contrasts. But the climaxes are splendidly presented and finely judged, Rattle offering a less grandly consoling vision than his eminent predecessor.

In fact the choir proves formidably attentive throughout. Its precision ensures that lines are never muddied and that the fugal and contrapuntal writing remains outstandingly clear. Allied to this is its obvious and impressively instant response to Rattle’s demands. The orchestra too is on top form, responding to the generous flow of their conductor’s direction. The cellos and violas sound especially fine.

In fact so much is excellent that a recommendation could be made on Rattle’s direction alone. However there are the soloists to consider and that’s where I feel very much more ambivalent. I think I understand what Thomas Quasthoff is trying to convey. His impassioned opening paragraphs in Herr, lehre doch mich convey frailty and the revelation of earthly vanities. But the means by which he conveys them seem to me too mannered. He changes vocal colour and tonal attack constantly, subjecting the line to an unmerciful buffeting. It’s not necessary to cite Fischer-Dieskau here – though I shall – because way back great singers such as Herbert Janssen (for Toscanini, in English in 1943) managed to sing with the kind of noble directness that did not imply the implacable or indeed preclude the desolate.  Quasthoff however is at least consistent, exemplifying his approach in Denn wir haben hier keine bleibende Stadt where his quasi-Wagnerian tonal disjunctions are reprised.

Dorothea Röschmann is a similarly fine artist and doesn’t present this kind of problem – but she does bring another to the mix. I find her effortful in Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit. There’s more than a touch of the hectoring about this kind of singing and her tone does - more often than it should – harden. It lends her performance a cool and distancing abrasion which I find unconsoling – and the rapidity of her vibrato adds to a tensile approach that similarly may not find favour.

But it would be wrong to end thus. If one can assimilate these vocal performances one will find Rattle’s direction powerful and intense. His is the greatest burden and he shapes and arches the work with real awareness. The audience, as noted earlier, is silent to what I would consider an unnatural degree but that’s hardly a demerit.

Jonathan Woolf 


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