Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem Op. 45 (1867) [77:05]
Janet Williams (soprano)
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Daniel Barenboim
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, September 1992, January 1993
WARNER APEX 2564-67717-6 [77:05]

While Daniel Barenboim's style has seemed not much to change over his long career; he has indeed grown musically. In this recording of Ein deutsches Requiem, he's modified the more egregious choral effects and other distractions of his early-1970s DG account. The Chicago orchestra - "his" orchestra at the time of the sessions - responds with more assurance than did the London Philharmonic. The homophonic passages, like the full-throated recap of Denn alles Fleisch at 9:48, come off well, with impressive presence and tonal mass.
Elsewhere, however, the results are spotty, sometimes because the conductor's conceptions remain overly self-conscious. The first part of Denn alles Fleisch, for all its emotional restraint, primarily seems to be about maintaining an artificially slow tempo. While the concluding Selig sind die Toten sounds flowing enough, the choral sopranos sound laboured moving from note to note.
Another problem, which mightn't seem like one offhand, is that Barenboim focuses on eliciting the distinct character of each musical episode. In the larger-scaled movements, this comes at the cost of long-term coherence. Even when the idea is right, the music ends up sounding padded and discursive. The sixth movement, Denn wir haben, goes with a steady tread, drawing mystery from its in-between dynamics, yet it feels one fugue too long.
Then there's the matter of Barenboim's beat. After his early solo piano career, he arrived on the world's major podiums with perhaps more musical ambition than real technique. Even now, his baton signals can fall short in terms of flexibility and simple clarity. There's no other good explanation for the woodwinds' not being together at the close of Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit. Transitions, particularly those involving the timpani - as in the setup for the outburst at 3.30 of Denn alles Fleisch and going into the final cadence of Herr, lehre doch mich - can be rhythmically stiff, or clumsy. The brass-and-drum interjections into Herr, lehre doch mich are soggy thuds. The intrusion of orchestral fragments into the leisurely choral textures of Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen sounds awkward.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Barenboim has consistently favored a faux-Furtwänglerian inattention to discipline, reflected in blunted contours and textures. To emulate Furtwängler, as with any other great artist, is easier said than done. Rather than imitating externals like his unclear beat, it might have been more productive to study the musical insights which led the older artist to conduct so. The fallacy that precision is "cold", while a measure of laissez-faire looseness is somehow ipso facto more expressive, while common, isn't supported by any particular evidence.
Thus, while the first movement's oboe solo, for example, is beautifully played on each appearance, the strings' pulsing eighth-notes beneath it are mushy, holding things back where a crisper rendition would have maintained tension and motion. The same is true for the sagging triplets under the chorus beginning at 2:04 of Herr, lehre doch mich. The effect is unsatisfying.
The singing doesn't swing matters either way. Thomas Hampson is sensitive in Herr, lehre doch mich, but one wants the climaxes to roll out more resonantly, and the heady mix in the middle section to have firmer support. He finds a nice recitative-like narrative delivery for the start of Denn wir haben, but bluster creeps in as he becomes more demonstrative. While Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit doesn't sound "too slow", it's certainly too slow for Janet Williams. The top lacks ease or float and is sometimes strained, and there's an invasive flutter. Only the brief minore passage at 4:43, where she sings more solidly, suggests the intent.
The beautiful, full sound of the Margaret Hillis-trained chorus is an asset, but they, too, can be uncertain about where the beat is landing, sometimes - as in the opening movement - artfully smudging their consonant articulations to conceal it. The choristers tend to "sing notes" in Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen and Selig sind die Toten, losing the long musical line - another sign of insecurity. In the fugue in Herr, lehre doch mich, the individual parts are clear enough, but each section withdraws too readily after intoning the subject.
For all my cavils about detail, Barenboim does give a respectable idea of the power and weight of the score. Still, if you want to hear what this music could sound like in Chicago, turn to Solti (Decca), with a clean, burnished orchestral sonority. The outstanding Hillis-trained chorus, which doesn't have to fake clarity. Paradoxically the Solti recording also evinces a more authentic Innigkeit. Among the "classic" recordings, Klemperer's (EMI) achieves the right gravitas without sacrificing momentum.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Barenboim gives a respectable idea of the power and weight of the score.