Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 [75:49]
Agnes Giebel (soprano); Hermann Prey (baritone)
Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Milano della RAI/Sergiu Celibidache
rec. Milan 19 February 1960. ADD

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 it again.

John Quinn

An historic performance that should have been left in the vaults.