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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem (1865-68) [74:21]
Ileana Cotrubas (soprano); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone)
Edinburgh Festival Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. 26 August 1978, Usher Hall, Edinburgh. ADD
BBC LEGENDS BBCL42462 [74:21]
Experience Classicsonline

Last year I reviewed a BBC Legends release of Ein deutsches Requiem in which the LPO was conducted by Klaus Tennstedt. Now the same label gives us another performance, from six years earlier, in which the same orchestra is directed by another great conductor, Carlo Maria Giulini.

Giulini led two performances of the work at the 1978 Edinburgh Festival, which was to be the last one directed by Peter Diamand. Though Giulini was a noted interpreter of Brahms he came late to Ein deutsches Requiem as Mike Ashman relates in an interesting booklet note. He quotes at some length from an interview the conductor gave not long before the Edinburgh performances in which he said that a great obstacle for him had been the fugues that feature in several parts of the work. As Giulini put it – rather well, I think: “The music is going along and it’s beautiful in a style that’s lyrical or espressivo or dramatic. Then suddenly it stops and – “altogether please” – now the fugue will start.” I know what he means. I’ve always enjoyed singing the fugues, which are challenging and, I think, exciting, but listening can be another thing. Here, in the hands of a master, I don’t find listening to the fugues a problem at all.

One thing that must be mentioned up-front is the recorded sound. On my equipment the choir in particular sounds somewhat recessed and thus their singing lacks some clarity. By comparison, the Tennstedt version, recorded in the Royal Albert Hall, balances choir and orchestra much better, even though the performers are set in a larger, more resonant acoustic. I’m prepared to believe, however, that what we hear on this Giulini recording is a reasonably accurate aural representation of what the audience heard in the Usher Hall.

In my review of his recording I expressed reservations about some of Tennstedt’s speeds, and about his pacing of the opening movement in particular. I’m much happier with Giulini’s tempi and his speed for the first movement is very well judged indeed. The music flows nicely in a traversal that’s almost exactly two minutes shorter than Tennstedt’s.

Giulini begins the second movement at a measured tread. Later on the fugue is sturdy but not turgid and the tranquillo section towards the end of the movement (from 13:09) is beautifully managed. Giulini makes an unmarked slowing in the last few bars, which even if it’s not marked in the score sounds convincing.  The fourth movement, ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’, is just held back a little too much for my taste but it’s nicely performed. I was a bit disappointed by the long fugue at the end of the sixth movement, on the words ”Herr, du bist würdig”.  This could really have done with a bit more intensity all round, especially from the choir.

I have mixed feelings about the choir. I don’t think the rather recessed balance does them full justice but even so there are times, such as the one I’ve just given, when I think they lack incisiveness. Also there are a few occasions when the pitching, especially of the sopranos at the top of their register, sounds a little democratic. The choir doesn’t sound fully warmed up in the opening pages. Later, in the third movement, they sound muddy and unfocused in the wonderful, radiant passage “Ich hoffe auf dich”, where the sopranos top A is especially distressing. Overall they give a decent account of the work but the London Philharmonic Choir (Tennstedt) is on better form, I think.

The soloists have relatively little to do in this work but what they have is important. Ileana Cotrubas gives much pleasure in the fifth movement, though I don’t think she quite matches the sincerity of Lucia Popp (Tennstedt). Fisher-Dieskau is on imperious form but what impressed me most of all about his singing is the subtlety he brings to his solos. He’s thoughtful, prayerful even, in parts of the third movement, producing some exquisite soft high notes and I was also surprised – pleasantly – by the delicacy that he brings to the start of the sixth movement. This is an intelligent, thoughtful reading by a great artist.

And that last sentence applies to Giulini also. In my experience he was peerless in kitting together the spiritual and operatic dimensions of Verdi’s Requiem. Though it has its fiery moments Ein deutsches Requiem doesn’t offer comparable opportunities to the conductor. It’s a more reflective, more consoling work and perhaps Giulini came to it at just the right time in his life - he was sixty four at the time of this performance. He secures some very fine playing from the LPO and consistently he shapes the music with great care and understanding. The dramatic pages are given full value, one example being the vivace section in movement VI at “Denn es wird die Posaune” (3:43), which is appropriately fiery. However, even more representative of Giulini’s art is the passage in the final movement, “Ja, der Geist spricht” (2:39 – 6:54), one of the loveliest in the whole work. Giulini shapes these radiant pages lovingly and with great eloquence but without ever sacrificing momentum and here the choir gives him their very best.

Despite a few reservations this is a performance of stature. It’s a devoted, sincere and lyrical reading, one which is typical of Carlo Maria Giulini in its nobility and integrity.

John Quinn



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