Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein Deutsches Requiem (1869)
Natalie Dessay (soprano)
Ludovic Tézier (baritone)
Swedish Radio Choir
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. Alte Oper, Frankfurt, October 2009
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6286100 [72:17]

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.

Simon Thompson

Orchestrally thrilling, choral singing absolutely outstanding but at times very difficult to make out.