Johannes Brahms’ mother died early in 1865. A year later
he started working on a large-scale choral piece in her memory.
His intention from the beginning was to compose a work to German
texts, and Brahms had already chosen suitable passages from Luther’s
translation of the Bible. Ein deutsches Requiem
but it is certainly a sacred work. Every performance of it -
Brahms’ longest composition by some margin - should be
an hour of devotion. There is nothing spectacular about the music
but it is deeply emotional and many pages of the score are extremely
beautiful. Ideally it should be heard in a large church with
warm acoustics, allowing the music to surround the listener.
I prefer to listen with eyes shut - also in my listening room
The first commercial recording of Ein deutsches Requiem
made more than sixty years ago in Vienna, just two years after
the end of the war. Walter Legge was the producer, the Vienna
Philharmonic and Singverein des Gesellschaft des Musikfreundes
were conducted by Herbert von Karajan and the soloists were Hans
Hotter and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. When that version was issued
on Naxos a couple of years ago both Colin Clarke and I hailed
it (see review
and Colin awarded it a ‘Bargain of the Month’. It
is definitely one of the great recordings of the Requiem.
Now comes the somewhat later Electrola recording under Rudolf
Kempe with sound refurbished by Mark Obert-Thorn. Kempe may not
have been the charismatic super-star conductor that Karajan liked
to be regarded as, but he was a conscientious and sensitive musician
and he was at his best in the central German romantic repertoire.
His recordings of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
classics and I learnt Brahms’ First Symphony through his
version. There is something of the same natural flow in his reading
of Ein deutsches Requiem
. Tempos seem unerringly right
- and they differ only marginally from Karajan’s - maybe
the fourth movement Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen
have been more relaxed and the final movement might have been
tauter, but this is more a question of personal taste than criticism.
The Berlin Philharmonic play admirably and the question is if
the Choir of St Hedwig’s Cathedral isn’t a notch
more homogeneous in tone than Karajan’s Singverein - good
as they are. The soloists are also wonderful. When reviewing
the Karajan recording I remarked that Hotter at times sounded
uncannily like F-D, who here sings with warm tone and with the
same sense for the text as Hotter. Elisabeth Grümmer sings
her solo with such simplicity and beautiful silvery tone that
this must be exactly what Brahms had in mind.
The sound is inevitably dated and dynamics are limited, but it
is well balanced and I had no problems enjoying every minute
of the music.
For those who want more modern sound - and stereo no doubt brings
the listener closer to the ideal situation of being surrounded
by the music - there is a plethora of recordings to choose from.
Karajan recorded the work several times and his DG version from
1964 with Gundula Janowitz and Eberhard Wächter is possibly
the best of them. A third, Otto Klemperer on EMI with Schwarzkopf
and Fischer-Dieskau is the most monumental and Solti on Decca
is more dramatic and he has Bernd Weikl and Kiri Te Kanawa as
soloists - the latter the most radiant soprano soloist on any
recording, challenged only by Grümmer on the Kempe set.
Kempe’s is, in spite of the dated sound, in every respect
a valuable recording and it is good to have it available at budget