This recording is a real enigma which, after several hearings,
I still can’t quite get to the bottom of. I want to say that
it’s wonderful, and in places it is, but there are so many puzzling
aspects of it that flummox me each time I come across them.
I think that your response to it will depend on your reaction
to these things.
Firstly, and most importantly, the real star of this recording
is the orchestra, who sound fantastic. Either by accident or
design they are by far the clearest and most “present” aspect
of the recording: the balance puts them right to the front of
the sound-picture meaning that you can pick out plenty of elements
in the orchestral texture that would normally be lost, such
as the harp notes at Die mit Tränen in the first
movement; small, but wonderfully effective and normally lost
in the larger sound, and this is only one of countless examples.
Furthermore, the playing and the sound are outstanding at every
turn and this, combined with the recorded balance, mean that
this recording gives the work its rich “dark brown” colour like
no other I have come across, not even the one by Karajan. I
would even go so far as to say that Järvi’s vision of the
work is primarily orchestral, so that at times the singing
sounds almost like an afterthought.
Some listeners will love this, and there are times when I found
it thrilling, especially in the opening and closing movements.
However, you have to put this alongside the fact that the choral
singing is absolutely outstanding but at times very difficult
to make out. The Swedish choir are first-rate, their luminescent
choral sound feeling rich without being heavy and conveying
the most intimate sense of meaning I have heard in a modern
recording of this work. However, the fact remains that they
take a back seat (literally!) to the orchestra. The choir are
clearly doing wonderful things in the final movement, but it
is the surging beauty of the violins and cellos that grab my
ears’ attention and, at the big climaxes, it is almost impossible
to hear what the choir are singing. This is at its worst in
the climax of the sixth movement which is exhilarating, powerful
and transcendent while at the same time sounding clogged and
opaque! The great fugue of the third movement sounds vigorous
and powerful, with a sense of purpose you seldom hear in recordings
of this work – perhaps not heard on disc since Klemperer, and
that is high praise! – but illuminating the orchestral texture
comes at the price of the choral line which is subsumed into
the greater sound. It’s extraordinary and puzzling while being
at times rather disorientating. To my ears this makes this recording
of the Requiem unique, at least among those I have heard,
but it isn’t a uniqueness that necessarily makes it recommendable.
Any listener will have to decide whether the merits of this
approach outweigh the debits: you simply pay your money and
take your choice.
There are other elements that might help you make your choice
too. Ludovic Tézier is a little more gravelly than I have heard
him in the past, but he declaims with power and conviction when
he needs to. Natalie Dessay, on the other hand, is never entirely
at ease with this German sacred idiom: she sounds inescapably
operatic rather than meditational, and her solo sounds uncomfortable
when it should be all about reassurance. Paavo Järvi is
great in places, but it often takes him a while to find his
groove. The opening, for example, plods rather than glides,
but later in the movement he finds a beautiful sense of meditation.
Likewise, he sounds detached and cold at the start of the second
movement and the great climax feels somewhat flat, but at its
second appearance a few minutes later the effect is shatteringly
powerful. It must be thanks to him that the lines of counterpoint
in the orchestra sound so compelling, but I can’t help wishing
he had settled into his groove a lot earlier.
So how on earth do we sum up this recording whose components
are so magnificent but which don’t come together as brilliantly
as they should? Next to other modern recordings it comes up
very well, and certainly a darn sight better than Nézet-Séguin’s
recent LPO recording. One thing I can say for certain, however,
is that this recording hasn’t changed my mind over which German
Requiem I would save if the flood waters were rising. Nearly
fifty years later Klemperer still embodies the work’s spirit
and conviction in a way that no-one else does, and he conjures
playing of power and spirit that, for me, still remains unparalleled.
I just can’t make up my mind about Järvi, though: there
is marvellously clear orchestral playing and blissful choral
sound, but the balance just keeps on getting in the way. Is
it recording of the month or one to be avoided at all costs?
Maybe a few more hearings will persuade me one way or the other.
For now, I’m stumped.