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

This famous recording wasn’t alone in impinging itself on the record-buying consciousness of the mid-1950s public. Karajan’s earlier 1947 recording in Vienna (Naxos 8.111038) with Hotter and Schwarzkopf offered, then as now, strong challenges. A year before Kempe’s recording with them, the Berlin Philharmonic was in action again, this time under the direction of Fritz Lehmann (DG 457-710-2). This is to say nothing of later recordings such as that by Klemperer or archival survivals, such as Furtwängler’s, or the recently-disinterred live 1954 Gunther Ramin performance (Archipel ARPCD0289), much less the wartime English-language version from Toscanini, all of which have subsequently emerged.

Karajan’s recording had a powerful intensity, whilst Lehmann’s and Kempe’s offered somewhat more conciliatory approaches. There are certainly consonances between these last two, and not just because the choral and orchestral forces are the same (Lehmann actually also used the Berliner Motettenchor), though Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Grümmer are on balance a more formidable duo than Otto Wiener and Maria Stader.

The well-blended choral work of the experienced Choir of St Hedwig’s Cathedral Berlin is notable, as is the finely judged, flexible tempi taken by Kempe. The important harp contribution is audible, but over and above such individual voices lies the sense of spirituality - often invoked, difficult precisely to define, but unanswerable when one hears it - that Kempe generates. The contrastive elements in Denn alles Fleisch, ones that some conductors push almost floridly, are here built into the fabric of the writing and are never startlingly out of scale. Kempe builds the movement with sure architectural logic and strength, bringing out the youthful elements of the choral forces. Perhaps to some he may stint on the sheer weight of things - but it remains a conception both logical and profound.

Fischer-Dieskau is predictably fine in his contributions. His Denn wir haben for instance is sung with breadth of tone and an inner tension. Grümmer’s consoling Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit is equally affecting and lacks an imparted ‘edge’ to her tone. She is one of the most communicative singers on record in this role.

So this performance, fifty-five years on, offers the grandest and noblest of perspectives to those for whom the very occasional congestion of the sound proves immaterial. Transfer philosophies enhance the listening pleasure.

Jonathan Woolf 

see also reviews by Göran Forsling and William Hedley