Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (1868) [82:40]
Christine Schäfer (soprano); Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Bavarian Radio Chorus; Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich, April 2007

At a few points in this performance the orchestra seems a little loud in relation to the choir. This is notably in the tenors’ important solo passage in the last movement. Otherwise the sound is very fine. There is the usual choice of subtitles, particularly useful in this text-heavy work. The concert is beautifully filmed, with lots of close-ups of the conductor, the soloists and carefully chosen performers, as well as a few long shots of Munich’s rather strangely-shaped hall. Conducting with neither score nor baton, Christian Thielemann presents an impassive, unsmiling figure on the rostrum, only occasionally encouraging the singers by mouthing the words. He beats time with both arms and his gestures seem relatively inexpressive. His eyes, however, are fixed on the performers, and mainly, as far as one can see, on the choir. He demonstrates total technical mastery.

The booklet essay, by Harald Reiter, contains a prophetic sentence: “In the last twenty years two conductors above all have sought to bring out the spiritual content of what is undoubtedly Brahms’s most important work in terms of its outer and inner dimensions … Sergiu Celibidache and Christian Thielemann.”

The opening movement begins in sober fashion, the slow descent to the depths before the choir’s first entry clear and perfectly balanced. Then, just as one is struck by the consistency of pulse, as the opening music returns Thielemann adopts a measured tempo, and the close of the movement is slow and solemn indeed. Only Sinopoli, of the recorded versions I know, takes more time over this first movement. Kempe, in a 1955 Berlin performance I reviewed some months ago (Naxos 8.111342) at 11:45 takes almost the same time, but Klemperer takes just ten minutes, and Masur, in a live performance from New York in 1995 (Teldec) needed even a minute less than that. Timing is only part of the story but more than once in this first movement the word ‘lugubrious’ came into my mind, which, in this of all works, it shouldn’t. The second movement, “Denn alles fleisch”, begins at a more flowing tempo. The choir is superbly disciplined, whether it be in the first, quiet statement of the main theme or in the fortissimo repeat, complete with very prominent timpani. Magnificent too is the choral singing in the second part of the movement, marvellously attentive to the conductor’s demands, both here and throughout. The ravishing final passage, simply marked tranquillo in the score, provokes a marked slowing from the conductor.

Christian Gerhaher is clear and expressive in the third movement, and the choir provides a beautifully controlled yet intense piano. No one seems hampered by what is again a very slow basic pulse. Even Sinopoli takes less time over this movement than Thielemann does, and there are surely passages that are simply too deliberate here. The gorgeous episode for the choir at the words “Ich hoffe” is magnificently sung but terribly drawn out. The whole movement carries not one indication of change of tempo, though you would never know it from this performance. The basic pulse of the final fugue, on the other hand, seems just right, and the vigorous, mezzo-staccato articulation in the string accompaniment ensures that the music never settles into the marmoreal heaviness that sometimes afflicts it. Not, that is, until the close, where the conductor slows down massively before a huge and unmarked pause preceding the final chord.

Thielemann just about respects Brahms’s request for a moderate basic pulse for the well-loved “Wie lieblich” (“How lovely are thy dwellings”), and the choir responds with some magnificent singing, with particularly pure-toned sopranos and tenors on the final page. Yet once again there are expressive excesses, including one particularly unfortunate application of the brakes at the words “immer dar” (43:42).

Christine Schäfer’s solo is eloquently sung, even if one might wish for a warmer, more motherly timbre in this crucial role. It was here that I finally lost patience with this performance. No cadence point, it would seem, may pass without delaying the resolution; no important moment may go unacknowledged. A truly horrible hiatus appears as early as the sixteenth bar (46:42), repeated in the corresponding place later in the movement. This may be what is meant by “bringing out” the work’s “spiritual content”. To my ears, however, the purity of the music is lost, leaving something lachrymose and self-indulgent.

Two more offensive changes of gear occur in the huge fugue that closes the sixth movement (at 64:05 and 65:13). Happily, Gerhaher is magnificent once again earlier on. By now I feared for the worst in the final movement, already difficult for the audience, at the end of a long evening, and challenging for the conductor to hold together. Thielemann doesn’t hold it together, though this is not the same as saying that his is not a consistent view. Too many changes of tempo, too many very slow tempi, too much expressive underlining undermines the feeling of forward movement in the most drawn-out reading of this movement I have ever heard. Spiritual? Reverent? No, turgid and dull, I fear, are words that came to my mind.

The concert ends strangely. Thielemann holds his hands high for a long time, as is now the practice, delaying the applause. The image fades away, but applause is there none. Surely, one thinks, the audience can’t be so moved as all that! But then the closing credits roll, against a background of sporadic coughing and, bizarrely, the sound of footsteps as if the conductor has left the platform in silence.

William Hedley

Magnificently sung and played, beautifully filmed, but the interpretation tests the listener’s patience.