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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
A German Requiem (1865-68)
Sally Matthews (soprano)
Christopher Maltman (baritone)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, 30-31 March 2013, Barbican, London
LSO LIVE LSO0748 SACD [64:07]

There was a lot to enjoy in the first instalment of Gergiev's LSO Brahms cycle, but I didn't care much for this German Requiem. It's not even that there's a lot to disagree with in it: it's more that so much of it is just so anodyne. The recording quality of the orchestra is good and various details stand out well, such as the harp in the first movement or the trombone in the quieter passages of the second, but the choral sound is fuzzy and lacks bite, a victim of the infamous Barbican acoustic, no doubt. Maybe it's better through SACD speakers, but in stereo this isn't satisfactory. This means that the first movement passes in a bit of a fog, as does the fourth, which for me lacked any sense of Elysian blessing. They sound at their best in the final movement, where Simon Halsey's guiding hand seems to have done them the most good, but so much of the rest is decidedly shruggable.

Gergiev, too, seems to lack engagement with the music he is trying to perform. His reading lacks energy; unforgivably so at some of the big moments. At the great Aber des Herrn Wort there is no quickening of the pulse whatsoever: instead, the chorus merely sound as though they are singing a little louder. The two great turning points lack punch, too. At the onset of the great fugue on Der Gerechten Seelen Gergiev speeds up in a way that sounds tokenistic and, to me, trivial. What you need here is solidity and architectural strength, not the frippery of a tacked-on accelerando. The same is true for the climax of the trumpet sounding in the sixth movement, which left me completely cold, as did the ensuing fugue. It just won't do to have a conductor who phones in his performance from a distance like this.

The soloists, too, are little more than passable. Sally Matthews hits the notes but has a hint of a warble at the top, and is no match for the luxuriant effortlessness of, say, Schwarzkopf (for Klemperer in London) or Janowitz (for Karajan in Berlin). Even Christopher Maltman seems under strain in a part that should lie right in the midst of his range. Maybe he was unwell on the night.

So this really doesn't match up to any of the great German Requiems in the catalogue. Why put up with this one when you can now get Klemperer at budget price? Better yet, fork out some more and pick up Rattle in Berlin if you want digital sound.

Simon Thompson

And a second review ...

This CD is the product of two LSO/LSC concerts given in March of last year. The male soloist was to have been Gerald Finlay; he, however, had to cry off with a throat infection, and his place was taken by Christopher Maltman. They were lucky to get him, because he is outstanding; firm of tone, passionate in declamation and excellent of diction.

A pity I can't quite say the same of Sally Matthews, the soprano; she is a singer I admire, but her German words are not clear, as is often the case with sopranos of this rather plummy type of voice. In her hands, 'Ihr habt nun traurigkeit' becomes impersonal, rather generalised and some of its intensity is lost.

Gergiev has received a lot of flak recently for the rigour of his schedule, and the dizzying way he flits from country to country. The criticism is that this can preclude detailed rehearsal and the evolution of a true understanding between him and his forces. I confess that I wasn't present at these concerts; but, I have to say, the charge of under-rehearsal can surely not be levelled at the finished result on this recording. The choral singing is of a high order, despite one or two slightly dodgy soprano entries. Anyone who has sung this work knows how cruel it is to both sopranos and tenors, constantly hovering around the top end of their registers.

The LSC, meticulously prepared by their director Simon Halsey, cope superbly for most of the time. Their corporate tone for the 'big moments' is shatteringly powerful; 'Denn alles Fleisch' produces the required frisson, though I wanted to hear more of those sinister rising octaves in the brass. The chorus 'Der Tod ist verschlungen', for me the crux of the whole work, acquires in Gergiev's hands a thrilling momentum. The choir do, however, sound a little tired in the final movement; hardly surprising, given that they had already sung the Szymanowski Stabat Mater earlier in the concert.

This issue, then, is far away from replacing such excellent recent versions as Rattle's with his Berlin forces on EMI, or established classics such as Klemperer with the Philharmonia or Previn and the RPO. Klemperer has the advantage of the Philharmonia Chorus at the height of their illustrious powers; he also has Schwarzkopf as soprano soloist, while Previn has the even more wondrous Margaret Price. This Gergiev CD does have that word I used earlier on - the 'frisson' of a live performance; and Gergiev fans will be intrigued to find out how he fares in a work slightly outside his more characteristic repertoire. Well worth hearing.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Masterwork Index: Brahms requiem





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