Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem
, Op. 45 (1868) [76:53]
Elisabeth Grümmer (soprano); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone)
Choir of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral Berlin; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Rudolf Kempe
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, June 1955
NAXOS 8.111342 [76:53]

One should be wary, I think, about comparing timings from one performance to another. In this case, though, it’s interesting, and perhaps even instructive. Rudolf Kempe, in Berlin in 1955, takes 11:45 over the first movement of the German Requiem. Kurt Masur, on the other hand, just as solidly Germanic, one might think, in a concert performance recorded in New York almost exactly forty years later, gets through it in 8:59. The whole work lasts a fraction over an hour under Masur; Kempe adds more than a quarter of an hour to that timing. This reflects a shift in the way the work is perceived by conductors nowadays, but there is much more to it than that, as this performance shows. Essentially a consolatory, hopeful work, clearly slow, lugubrious tempo are out, replaced by fleet, forward-moving speeds and more transparent textures. We probably have John Eliot Gardner to thank for this: his Philips recording from 1990 was widely announced as representing a new way of seeing the German Requiem. It is certainly a superb performance, magnificently well played and sung, but the praise on its release was not by any means universal. On the contrary, some critics thought it simply wrong-headed. Other similar performances followed in its wake, however, and as the example of Masur shows, from German conductors as well as foreign ones. Let’s have a look at a couple more timings. For the second movement, Kempe takes 15:47, whereas Masur would appear to dispatch it in a mere 11:48; and in the final movement, which shares much of the first movement’s musical material, Kempe takes 13:14, Masur, 9:14. Gardner’s speeds fall generally between these two extremes, frequently, but not exclusively, closer to Masur than to Kempe. Otto Klemperer was no speed merchant, but the tempi in his classic EMI recording of 1961are generally faster than those of Kempe, though slower than those of Gardner. Of modern performances I have heard, the only conductor who approaches Kempe in terms of tempi is Giuseppe Sinopoli.

A conductor should certainly take care not to stretch the audience’s patience too far in the German Requiem. The first two movements, in particular, are very long and contain a fair amount of repeated material. The music must never drag or – heaven forbid – plod, nor should any suggestion of heaviness be tolerated. Mourning plays little part in this piece; or rather it does, but in a particular sense. The opening words, for example, Christ’s own from the Sermon on the Mount, are rendered in the New English Bible as “How blest are the sorrowful; they shall find consolation.” And consolation, rather than the promise of eternal life, is the message that one retains after reading the very personal selection of Biblical texts the composer assembled. This is a Requiem with no tolling bells, no light everlasting and no day of wrath - though admittedly, the trumpet does sound.

I have known and studied the German Requiem for many decades, ever since I sang “How lovely are thy dwellings” in the school choir, to be precise. In recent years I came to the conclusion that the Gardner revolution was a positive one, whilst at the same time retaining an admittedly irrational preference for what I still believe to be the finest recorded performance of the work, that of Klemperer. But this Kempe reading has once again made me stop and think. Above all it provides, once again, a corrective to musical dogma. There is no one way to perform a masterpiece. By rights, at several points, especially in the first two movements, the listener’s attention should be wandering. But Kempe’s control of the drama of the piece is masterly, and this simply doesn’t happen. There is far greater variety of tempo than is the way nowadays, with more slowing at the ends of phrases and important sections. But when one looks at the score there always seems to be a reason, usually a musical one, for what the conductor does. To give just a single example of this drawn from the many in my notes, I’d like to draw attention to the fugal passage at the end of the third movement. Kempe slows down enormously here, and much sooner than is the fashion nowadays, thus making far greater sense of the quavers in the tenor and bass parts which appear in these final bars. Some listeners will think he slows down too much in the final pages of the second movement, where Brahms’ only indication of tempo change is to add the word tranquillo. But the close of the movement is, in this performance, as powerful and moving as I have ever heard it, more than justifying Kempe’s tempo choices.

Elisabeth Grümmer sings her solo beautifully, full-throated, womanly and ardent, not at all the pure, maiden-like voice favoured in more recent performances. Fischer-Dieskau is magnificent, just as he was for Klemperer six years later, and perhaps even more vivid and moving when he asks to know the measure of his days. The choir, one or two brief moments of sinking pitch in the sopranos apart, are outstanding, as is the orchestra, both groups clearly gripped by the conductor’s vision. The recording is obviously limited, and there is a fair amount of hiss at times. I’m no fan of historical recordings as a rule, frequently finding unconvincing the argument that the truth of a performance shines through the limitations in sound. In this case it did, no doubt thanks to the remarkable skill of Mark Obert-Thorn, and I’m confident that if you go with the performance the sound will not bother you. I wish, though, that in restoring historical recordings, engineers would allow a few seconds of hiss before the first notes of a work or a movement within a work, thus allaying the suspicion that the attack of the very first note has been cut off.

Malcolm Walker’s excellent note dealing with the work and the performers adds to the value of an outstanding issue which really should not be missed.

William Hedley