Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
A German Requiem, Op.45 (1868)
Mari Ann Häggander (soprano), Siegfried Lorenz (baritone)
Leipzig Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra/Herbert Kegel
rec. Paul Gerhardt Church, Leipzig, October 1985
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94353 [71.42]
It is odd that the three greatest large-scale Requiems of the nineteenth century - those by Berlioz, Verdi and Brahms - should all have been written by composers who were most decidedly in various ways at odds with established religion. This reflection is sparked by the fact that the booklet note by Klaus Blum with this release spends very little time discussing the music of the German Requiem itself, and instead spends four very interesting pages discussing the reasons why Brahms should have lost his faith in the immortality of the soul. Whatever the reasons, it is noteworthy that the name of Christ is never once cited in the texts that Brahms himself extracted from the Bible for his Deutsches Requiem; and it is also of significance to observe that Brahms actually rejected a recommendation from his friend Carl Reinthaler that such a reference should be inserted into the text.
Brahms’s agnosticism did not stop the work from being heavily condemned by George Bernard Shaw and others of his generation for its perceived pious religiosity, which was probably enhanced by the marmoreal speeds at which much of the music was performed. In more recent years the tendency has been towards more flowing speeds, enhancing the dramatic contrasts in the score. Some of the recordings which have adopted this approach have tended to throw the baby out with the bathwater, giving a misleading impression that the score is lighter in spirit than Brahms clearly intended in his heartfelt homage to the memory of Schumann. The greatest performances give due weight to the score without reducing it to ponderousness.
This is very nearly a great performance. In the first place, it has Mari-Ann Häggander, who gives quite simply one of the most beautiful renditions of the fifth movement that I have ever heard. She has the creamy purity of Gundula Janowitz (for Karajan on DG) with greater emotion and the poise of Schwarzkopf (for Klemperer) without any sense of archness. Her voice seems simply tailor-made for what is a deceptively difficult part. In the second place, Kegel’s speeds are close to ideal, neither too funereal nor in too much of a hurry, and the recorded balance between choir and orchestra is just about ideal. In the third place, Siegmund Nimsgern has just the right combination of implacability and humanity to make a phrase like “Und ich davon muss” strike directly to the heart. Finally, Kegel achieves precisely the right balance between horns and timpani in the opening section of “Dann alles Fleisch.”
This last point may need some explanation. Brahms has really set performers an almost insoluble dilemma here. The movement starts with a slow sarabande which leads into a unison chorale for the choir. The sarabande then returns but this time with two added elements for rising horns marked ben marcato and an insistent triplet rhythm in the timpani. This then goes on to underpin the restatement of the chorale. If the conductor, like Klemperer for EMI, brings out the horns, then the timpani are relegated to a rhythmic background. If, like Karajan in his first (DG) recording he emphasises the timpani, the horns are reduced to a mere background in their turn. Rattle in his much-praised and otherwise excellent live recording for EMI gets the worst of both worlds, neither counterpoint being ideally clear. Kegel brings out the horns to begin with, and only then brings the timpani forward to underlie the chorus, which reconciles both elements perfectly. The problem however comes with his treatment of the chorale itself. He has clearly thought deeply about the words, and gets his choir to enunciate the text with precision and point. In doing so he breaks up the implacable vocal line which here should surely be set in sturdy contrast to the accompaniment. Brahms himself gives no indications of any dynamic changes in the phrasing - but then he rarely does.
The same problem tends to arise elsewhere. There is a praiseworthy attempt to get the meaning of the words across, but this comes at the expense of a slight sense of ‘niggling’, of not being willing to leave Brahms to make his points in his own way. Better indeed that than a solemn religiosity. The pointing of the words is never unconsidered or inappropriate but sometimes the sense of the lyric line of the music is sacrificed. The recording itself is close to ideal in the balance between voices and orchestra, with plenty of instrumental detail coming through. The choir is not over-large, but the line is always clear. The depiction of the last trumpet in the sixth movement is dramatic and energetic.
This is not then an overwhelmingly great recording, but nevertheless it is a very good one - and well worth consideration at the budget price. Brilliant Classics are once again to be congratulated for their uncanny ability to spot a deserved reissue of a performance that at the time of its original release seems to have been comprehensively ignored.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Not overwhelmingly great but nevertheless very good.
Masterwork Index: A German Requiem