Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (1868) [80:29]
Christine Schäfer (soprano); Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Münchner Philharmoniker/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, April 2007, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich
Region code: A, B, C. Picture format: 1080i 16:9; Sound format: PCM Stereo DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Spanish
C MAJOR Blu-ray 719904 [82:46]

This performance was reviewed as a DVD some time ago by William Hedley; it has now appeared as a Blu-Ray.

Before discussing the performance a few words are in order concerning the technical presentation. The sound is excellent and for the most part the camera work is good too. However, there are one or two features that I found distracting. One is the tendency to light the platform in different colours at various times. Sometimes the lighting is “normal” but at times someone has thought it a good idea to change the platform illumination to a more subdued blue-tinted light. I think this is misguided and it’s noticeable that all the orchestra have theatre pit-style lights on their music stands. Also from time to time two different images of the choir are superimposed on each other with one set of images moving across the screen from left to right while the other moves in the opposite direction. Quite what this is supposed to achieve – beyond making the viewer feel queasy – I’m at a loss to understand. Fortunately this doesn’t happen too often. I’m also perplexed as to why a conventional concert performance is preceded by having the titles shown against what looks like a blue curtain after which the picture fades into Thielemann’s opening gestures. At the end there’s no applause and the credits roll against the same blue curtain while, bizarrely, we hear the noises of the audience shifting in their seats and what I suspect is the conductor and soloists leaving the platform. All of these distractions are most unusual for a label that normally presents films of concerts in a clear and straightforward way.

What of the performance? At fractionally over 80 minutes it’s quite an expansive one. Just to take a few rivals at random, Klemperer’s famous studio recording lasts just 68:44 (review); a live performance conducted by Tennstedt that I reviewed a while ago came in at 76:41; and a live account by Giulini lasts for almost exactly the same time (review). I came across William Hedley’s remarks about this Thielemann version only after I’d finished my listening and formed my views. I see that he was disconcerted not only by some of the conductor’s selected speeds, finding them often too expansive, but also by the variations of tempo within some movements. I must say that the pacing didn’t bother me as much but it’s important that anyone contemplating acquiring this recording should also read William’s views as well as mine.

Normally I like to hear Brahms played without excessive dalliance; his music has backbone and performers need to remember that. I think what has converted me on this occasion to such an expansive performance is the sheer quality of the playing and singing. In particular, the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, expertly trained by Peter Dijkstra, sing magnificently from start to finish. Their depth of tone is admirable as is their observance of dynamics and the technical control behind their singing. When they sing full-out the sound is thrilling but time and again they prove how exciting it can be to hear a choir singing very quietly. Theirs is an exceptionally good contribution.

The orchestra is equally good. At the time of this performance Christian Thielemann was the orchestra’s principal conductor and it seems clear that they were well schooled in what their conductor wanted. Thielemann’s style, as I’ve seen before, is very restrained; not for him the big gestures. Here he is, if anything, more restrained than I’ve seen him before; he conducts from memory and without a baton. Throughout the performance the orchestral sound is cultivated and refined – burnished would be an apt word – though when required there’s ample power too,

Both soloists are excellent. Christine Schäfer offers wonderful, posed singing in ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’. It’s an exquisitely shaped and shaded performance and provided you don’t find Thielemann’s measured and moulded approach too much of a good thing then you should enjoy this radiant performance. Christian Gerhaher is firm of tone and employs a wide dynamic range to good expressive effect. He makes a strong impression in ‘Herr, lehre doch mich’ and is equally fine in the sixth movement.

Thielemann has a strong grip on the score. There were times when I found his pacing a bit too deliberate – ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’ was a case in point. Yet in that same movement I could not but admire the way he racks up the tension until the moment when the Last Trumpet sounds; that’s impressive conducting. The last movement is undoubtedly drawn out but the radiant singing and playing won me over. As someone weaned on Klemperer I think that if I’d encountered this as an audio recording I might have lost patience with it but the visual experience adds another dimension: you can see the performance taking shape before your eyes.

Thielemann’s isn’t the only way with this great work but it seems to me that on its own terms it’s a distinguished performance. It is often spacious – and sometimes a bit too spacious - but the dedication of the performers and, especially, the superb choral singing wins the day for me.

John Quinn

Previous review (DVD): William Hedley

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