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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45 (1865-8)
Barbara Bonney (soprano), Bryn Terfel (baritone)
Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, Swedish Radio Choir
Berliner Philharmoniker/Claudio Abbado
rec. Großer Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, 3 April 1997
Subtitles: English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Spanish
TV format: 1080i Full HD 16:9; Sound: PCM Stereo; Region code: All (Worldwide)
EUROARTS Blu-ray 2012784 [79:00]

This recording of the Brahms Requiem is by no means new: it was reviewed in DVD format by Peter Quantrill as far back as 2002. It now appears as a Blu-ray.

In the booklet note we read that Claudio Abbado has strong personal memories of Ein deutsches Requiem in this very hall. As a student in Vienna he sang in a Karajan performance as a member of the Musikverein chorus and later, at Karajan’s invitation, he conducted the work in the same hall for his Vienna Philharmonic conducting debut. We are also reminded that the first four movements of the work received their premiere performance in this hall in 1867. Oddly, one salient fact seems to be missing from the documentation: this present performance was given on the exact centenary of Brahms’s death, which probably accounts for why Abbado looks so moved at the end – happily, there’s a prolonged silence before the applause begins.

Abbado leads a dedicated performance, though at times I felt his tempi were perhaps a little too measured. However, the conviction of the performance – and the quality of the singing and playing – are such that I found myself caught up in the performance with my slight and momentary reservations swept aside. The singing of the two professional choirs is first class. There are probably between 80 and 90 singers but when one has professionals with all the focus of tone that they can bring then one doesn’t need a larger choir. Indeed, there are positive benefits from not having a larger choir in terms of flexibility and responsiveness. So there’s a great deal of excellent singing to admire in the lower dynamic ranges but, equally, the choir can turn on the power when necessary. The substantial fugues that end the second, third and sixth movements are very well done; there’s weight in the tone when required but also light and shade and the incisive singing means that the fugues are sung with clarity. In a lesser performance one can regret that Brahms didn’t prune the fugues somewhat: that’s not the case here. The choir makes a significant contribution towards the radiance of the concluding movement – though the conductor and orchestra are equally important in achieving this.

Bryn Terfel is the baritone soloist. With his beard and long flowing locks he looks just like one envisages an Old Testament prophet would look. The trouble is that he also sings as though he were a Prophet. The full, generous tone gives great pleasure and there’s no doubt that the singing is, like Terfel’s bearing, very imposing. However, I feel that he tries too hard at times to invest the music with emotional feeling. This is especially true in the third movement; things are rather better in the sixth movement. I found myself thinking of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the great Klemperer recording; he, too, invests the music with great meaning but is less obviously effortful in so doing.

Barbara Bonney, who sings from memory, as does Terfel, makes a lovely sound in ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’. Her singing is pure and clear and she seems much more relaxed and natural than Terfel yet she still sings with fine expression. I enjoyed her performance.

The playing of the Berliner Philharmoniker is predictably fine. However, the recorded sound, though perfectly acceptable, does rather favour the singers so one can best appreciate the quality of the playing when the orchestra is heard alone.

It’s good to see Claudio Abbado in action when he was in his prime before illness affected him. This expertly moulded and deeply felt performance is an excellent reminder of what a great conductor he was.

John Quinn

Previous review (DVD): Peter Quantrill

Masterwork Index: Ein deutsches Requiem