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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (1868)
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Hans Hotter (baritone)
Singverein des Gesellschaft des Musikfreundes, Wien
Wiener Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan.
rec. Musikvereinsaal, Vienna, Austria, 20-22, 27-29 October 1947. ADD
from Columbia LX 105/1064.
NAXOS 8.111038 [76:13]

This remarkable performance, made in circumstances of unique hardship, surely already has a place in the hearts of all lovers of Brahms’ most radiant choral work. This was actually the first complete studio version of Ein deutsches Requiem - the studio in question being none other than the Grosser Saal of the Musikverein! The first issue was on Columbia LXs however I first got to know this performance from an EMI Références transfer; it is also currently available on the Classica d’Oro label. Mark Obert-Thorn’s work seems to have the edge in transparency: try the second movement, around the five minute mark, to hear just what the Karajan of 1947 could achieve texturally!

This is possibly the closest Karajan got to Furtwängler in terms of long-range thought and its realisation. His pacing of the second, and longest, movement, “Denn alles Fleisch ist wie die Gras” (“For all flesh is as grass”) is masterly. One really receives the impression of Brahmsian vastness.  In addition, he captures the peace of “Wie lieblich ist deine Wohnungen” (“How lovely is thy dwelling place”) to heart-rending effect. Accents can count, too, though: listen to the penultimate movement, around four and a half minutes in. Indeed this movement, too, contains some of the great drama of the performance as the choir challenges Death. This version of the Requiem ends with its own redemptive force in the shape of a prayer-like “Selig sind die Toten” (“Blessed are the dead”). Listen out for the ray of sunshine oboe at around 3:20.

What a privilege it is to hear the great Hans Hotter - to my mind one of the great singers of all time - in top form. His entreaty, “Herr, lehre doch mich”, drips with emotion. The characteristic depth of timbre, the awareness of the text he sings and the innate musicality are all there, supplemented by a keen awareness of occasion. He adds real presence to the penultimate movement, too, wherein he sings with almost transcendental beauty.

I guess opinion on Schwarzkopf will be forever divided. Her voice is instantly recognisable, her diction impeccable. She sings with purity, and is generally steady in her number, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit”. I have to confess that if pressed to find a weakness in this performance, Frau Schwarzkopf would be it. But many will disagree, I am sure. 

Of course, Karajan being Karajan, he recorded this work severally. He is joined by Tomowa-Sintow and van Dam - same choir, but BPO - on EMI; with Hendricks and van Dam - same choir, and orchestra - on DG; with Battle and van Dam on Sony DVD; and with Waechter and Janowitz: BPO, yellow label again. This 1947 recording remains however his supreme achievement in this marvellous score. There may be more clarity in the internal choral parts elsewhere, but nowhere is there the same spirit of hope and belief. 

There are those, of course, who will prefer Klemperer’s more monumental approach - available as a GROC - but there is never at any point any doubting the greatness of Karajan’s achievement.

No texts or translations is a bit of a black mark in this piece. You can find them here, if you have not already got them from another recording in your library. There is in any event a balancing credit note in the form of  Malcolm Walker’s exemplary notes. Obert-Thorn adds a small note of his own, citing British shellacs as the source.

This performance is forever recommended. That Naxos has provided a transfer at such price and quality zooms the recommendation in on this issue. 

Colin Clarke



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