Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem Op. 45 (1857-68) [60:21]
Sylvia McNair (soprano); Håkan Hagegård (baritone)
Westminster Symphonic Choir/Joseph Flummerfelt
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Kurt Masur.
rec. live, February-April 1995, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City. DDD
WARNER APEX 2564 65941-4 [60:21]
Very few recordings adhere literally to Brahms’ metronome markings but at just over the hour this performance is the fastest I know. Many other recordings routinely take anything from 65 to even 75 minutes. As such, Masur’s live version is of interest because it takes the risk of attempting to be more faithful to the composer’s apparent intentions. It is an interpretation which through its fleetness and lightness of touch evidently wishes to bring to the fore the qualities of compassion and consolation. These Brahms himself underlined in his declaration that the word “German” in the Requiem’s title could easily be substituted by “human”.
The danger is that it could come across as glib, diminishing the essential gravity of the piece. I do not find that to be the case: if anything this is a viable alternative to the more monolithic or even morbid interpretations which have stood the test of time. I am not saying that it is time for Klemperer, Karajan, Levine or Previn to move over. I am certainly not endorsing the Brahms-lite of Gardiner or Norrington, but this recording is a wholly valid antidote to more portentous versions. No doubt being freed from the rigid East German tradition encouraged Masur to be innovative in his approach to speed and rhythm.
Despite it being a speciality, Masur could on occasion during his tenure with the New York Philharmonic be dull and uninspired in Brahms. One reviewer even went so far as to describe performances of the symphonies and Requiem as “soporific”. Not so here; this has lift and spring - it is even brisk in parts, such is Masur’s desire to keep things moving. I would describe the prevailing mood as propulsive and underpinned by a refreshing element of tension; the only place where I found proceedings to feel rushed was in the second fugue in the sixth, penultimate movement.
The fugue in the third movement is a triumph, however. This was the location for the infamous disaster of the first performance, when the timpanist, misunderstanding the intent of Brahms’ marking “sempre con tutta la forza”, pounded away throughout, obliterating the other instruments and causing the audience to hiss in disapproval. No such problem here: Masur artfully balances the simplicity of the soloists’ plaintive melodies against the terrified and terrifying polyphonic outbursts of the choir, building to a stirring peroration.
Indeed, that harried second fugue apart, everything is judged very nicely. The sombre opening, shorn of upper strings, is intense yet we are not allowed to forget that the prevailing note is one of joy and blessedness. The gentle woodwind, very well tuned, add to the serenity. The grim Dance of Death - almost a macabre sarabande - of “Denn alles Fleisch” is superbly shaped. Masur’s treatment of the dotted notes in the lilting three-quarter-time passages provides more than a hint of consolation; likewise the “Wie lieblich sind Deine Wohnungen” is almost tripping and smiling. Håkan Hagegård’s vehement baritone is a little dry and light and the vibrato has marginally loosened since his recording for Levine in 1983 but it is still a powerful, focused sound without too much recourse to barking. I continue to prefer the darker-voiced José van Dam or Samuel Ramey - or even Hagegård’s younger self. The muted strings of “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” are meltingly beautiful. Sylvia McNair’s contribution will seem a little earthbound given that she must inevitably be compared with ethereally-voiced exponents such as Gundula Janowitz, Margaret Price, Kathleen Battle, Barbara Hendricks and Barbara Bonney; in such formidable company she is adequate: unfussy but undistinguished.
The articulation and dynamic shading of the choir are excellent; they are mostly very homogeneous, the odd stray sibilants notwithstanding. Their attack on “Aber des Herrn Wort” could be keener but they make up for that by the clarity of their enunciation in “und Schmerz und Seufzen” and the fierce momentum of “Tod, wo ist dein Stachel?”
The problematic Avery Fisher Hall acoustic is a bit dull, dead and bass-heavy but not damagingly so. Instruments and voices are very well balanced and there are very few coughs. One press review of the live performance complained of the “ugly” sound made by the electronic organ every time it entered - it plays during about a third of the work - but the recording seems to have tamed that obtrusiveness and its prolonged tonal pedals provide the necessary gravitas.
All in all, this is a worthy alternative to the plethora of recordings available, constituting something a little different.
A worthy alternative to the plethora of recordings, constituting something a little different.
Masterwork Index: Ein deutsches Requiem