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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (1867) [64:07]
Sally Matthews (soprano); Christopher Maltman (baritone)
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, Barbican Centre, London, March 2013
LSO LIVE LSO 0748 [64:07]

Gergiev's refined treatment of the German Requiem is welcome, avoiding the turgidity associated with this music in some quarters. Sometimes, this light touch is reflected in tempi brisker than the norm: the airy lift of Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, for example, recalls some of the composer's spring-like lieder. At other times, Gergiev sets a standard pace but lightens the textures, rather than letting them go thick.
The first two movements most vividly illustrate Gergiev's approach. Selig sind, die da Leid tragen begins quietly, with unusually intense concentration. The pulsing low strings are clear, yet, as the textures build, the sonority is warm. The woodwinds, as they enter, are pleasingly transparent, so the textures stay "open" and clear rather than thick: the reed and string sonorities set each other off nicely. Denn alles Fleisch begins with a similar lightness, pounding timpani and all, and with restraint, maintaining the mood of the "mourners" referenced in the text of the first movement. The choral is consistently well-blended and -balanced, save when some whitish sounds occasionally escape the tenors.
Yet, for all its insights, this performance falls short, for reasons that may be elusive. The fugues in the second and third movements are unusually buoyant, and impeccably voiced and balanced - every strand is clear. Yet, despite Gergiev's propulsive manner, there's no sense of an overall shape to either of them; Denn alles Fleisch, having already gone on for a while before its fugue begins, sounds particularly aimless. Similarly, the concluding Selig sind die Toten movement is played and sung with the tact that marked the opening of the piece, but it feels somehow detached, an unsatisfactory resolution of the musical journey.
Should the soloists interest you, Christopher Maltman takes a while to warm up, figuratively and literally. At the start of Herr, lehre doch mich, he sounds a bit gruff, and the rise at "und ich davon muss" is uncomfortable. That phrase goes better when it returns at full voice later on, and the baritone gradually settles into a clearer, more open sound, though his closed vowels are pressed. Sally Matthews does as well as most other sopranos in Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit. Perhaps her float isn't ideal, but the tessitura is cruel, and she conveys the appropriate consolation, with the voice maintaining its presence as it drops into the midrange.
A good performance - and from an unexpected quarter, at that - but no challenge to your particular favourite from analogue days: the burnished, reverent Solti (Decca), perhaps; or the silky, luminous Karajan (DG); or the taut, imposing Klemperer (EMI).
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
Previous review: Gwyn Parry Jones

Masterwork Index: Brahms requiem