Johannes BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (1868)
1. Selig sind, die da Leid tragen [11:45]
2. Denn alles Fleisch es ist wir Gras [15:47]
3. Herr, lehre doch mich [10:49]
4. Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen [5:19]
5. Ihr habt nur Traurigkeit [8:12]
6. Denn wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt [11:46]
7. Selig sind die Toten [13:14]
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) (3, 6), Elisabeth Grümmer (soprano) (5); Choir of St Hedwig’s Cathedral, Berlin, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Rudolf Kempe
rec. June 1955, Jesus-Kristus-Kirche, Berlin
NAXOS 8.111342 [76:53]

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 is not liturgical 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 at home.

The first commercial recording of Ein deutsches Requiem was 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 and Lohengrin are 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 could 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 price.

Göran Forsling