The Brahms Requiem divides opinion in the Quinn household.
I love the piece though, if pressed, I would admit that Brahms
might, with profit, have trimmed one of two of his fugues! Mrs
Quinn, on the other hand, finds it a dull and excessively long
piece. I dare not let her listen to this performance since I
fear it would reinforce all her prejudices. Indeed, this is
a version that tests even my loyalty to the work!
Sergiu Celibidache’s many admirers often praise his original
approach to well-tried works and also his quest for sheer beauty
of sound and phrasing and I’m sure they are right so to do.
Unfortunately, I have to say that I find his approach to this
particular work is totally misconceived. In trying for expressiveness
he goes far too far and frequently pulls the music much further
than it can take. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if he were served
by better performers but while the orchestra is good the choir
is no better than adequate. The sopranos in particular suffer
from a tendency to swoop towards notes – especially in the first
and last movements – and sometimes the pitching is what a distinguished
singer of my acquaintance would call “democratic”.
The first movement suffers from the conductor’s wish to invest
every phrase with “meaning”. Frankly, I found listening to it
a trial. Matters improve a bit in the second movement – the
section beginning ‘So seid nun geduldig, liebe Brüder’ is delicately
played and sung, the music invested with a pleasing lightness,
though the pitching sounds imperfect at the end of this section.
On the other hand, earlier in the same movement, it sounds to
me as if the choir’s phrasing at ‘und alle Herrlichkeit des
Menschen’ is chopped up at the expense of the line.
Hermann Prey sings well in the third movement, though I think
Celibidache’s tempo is a bit too slow – he’s better at ‘Ach,
wie gar nichts’. The choir, especially the tenors, impress with
their fervour at ‘Nun Herr, wes soll ich mich trösten?’ But
then the conductor undoes that good work with an impossibly
elongated tempo at that radiant passage ‘Ich hoffe auf Dich’
– you wonder if the choir will ever manage to get to the top
of the phrase. Prey’s other appearance is in the sixth movement.
He does his best but at Celibidache’s turgid tempo there’s no
sense of drama: none, that is, until we get to ‘Denn es wird
die Posaune schallen’, which is fiery and exciting throughout
that whole stretch of music. It’s just a pity that the recorded
sound recedes into murkiness at this point.
The other soloist is the wonderful Agnes Giebel. One can only
admire her breath control in ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’. She
must have been taxed by the slow pace but she maintains the
line and a lovely tone.
It may help readers to get a feel for the pacing of this performance
if I indicate comparative timings for a couple of the movements
against those in Otto Klemperer’s famous EMI recording. Celibidache
takes 11:32 for the first movement against Klemperer’s 9:56.
Again, in the fifth movement Celibidache requires 8:04 but Klemperer
takes only 6:51. Klemperer’s timing for the final movement is
a ‘mere’ 10:13 while Celibidache drags the music out to 13:14.
With these variances it’s little surprise to find that the total
length of the Klemperer performance is 69:16, compared with
Celibidache’s 75:49, yet I feel no lack of space or unseemly
haste in Klemperer’s noble reading.
I don’t think I need go on. There are parts of this work where
I admire Celibidache’s approach but, sadly, these are more than
outweighed by misconceived or, frankly, perverse interpretative
decisions. The recorded sound is not very good and, in all honesty,
I think this is an historic performance that should have been
left in the vaults. The documentation is woefully inadequate.
Admirers of this conductor may well wish to investigate this
performance though they may feel it does little for his reputation.
For myself, life is too short for me to wish to spend time hearing
Masterwork Index: Brahms
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