Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45
Christina Landshamer (soprano); Florian Boesch (bass)
Radio-Sinfonieorkester Stuttgart des SWR
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, NDR Choir/Roger Norrington
rec. 2014, Stuttgarter Liederhalle, Beethovensaal

Roger Norrington previously recorded Brahms’s German Requiem in 1992 with his London Classical Players in a production roundly panned by Paul Corfield Godfrey (see review). I’ve read about some of the arguments about vibrato or the lack of it, and sampled it even in Mahler, but if a performance is good enough I’m more likely to take the view that we need our maverick conductors. Even if there may be a few dud recordings around then at least they are different to what everyone else perceives as being the ‘real’ Brahms, whatever that may be. That earlier Virgin recording does sound rather underpowered however, and any beautiful moments which emerge are more the results of the immortal work of the composer glimmering through than of a team of musicians finding and communicating the essence and heart of his remarkable vision.

There is certainly an all-round improvement in this Hänssler Classic over the older Virgin Classics release, with a more engaged sounding choir, and soprano Christina Landshamer on good form and unashamedly romantic in the penultimate movement Denn wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt. This raises all the old contradictions, in which for instance the flautists manage to play without vibrato where the oboist can’t, and does, if you get what I mean. There is a warmth to the choral sound which comes from conventional contemporary singing technique, which involves vibrato at the very least above anything other than a pianissimo dynamic. This is weighted against a body of strings playing without vibrato, so we have a difference in worlds from the outset. I for one find constantly being aware of this kind of thing rather distracting from the actual music.

In terms of tempi Norrington has broadened a little, adding a couple of minutes over the entire duration of the work. This is mostly to be found in the outer movements, which have gained a little in terms of sweep and gravitas. The second movement, Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras is actually 20 seconds shorter in this new recording, the feeling now more than ever like that of a grim waltz than a funereal march. The lack of sustained intensity takes quite a bit away from those massive climaxes, though the choir does a good job of making everything sound as natural as possible. It’s worth getting a little perspective by making a comparison with another recent recording here, and I’ve had another listen to Marin Alsop on the Naxos label (review). This recording is by no means all things to all people, and her tempo in the opening of this movement is considered ‘on the faster side’, but with greater contrast in that speeding up of the section further along marked Etwas bewegter and the Allegro non troppo towards the end of the movement. Looking at the score makes me wonder which musical text we’re meant to take, that of the composer or the conductor. Norrington fiddles with the minim first note of the bar, making it into a crotchet with a rest. There is bags of quiet intensity in those notes when they are sustained, and I have to wonder what this is meant to achieve. Indeed, the opening is not Langsam, but I suppose an argument can still be made for a slow march with the tread as one-per-bar. Otto Klemperer on EMI is often wheeled out as a reference, and while not everything in this particular garden is equally pretty, the sense of a hard-won victory as we “gen Zion kommen mit Jauchzen” is absolutely undeniable in this movement. With Norrington it is more an incident along the way, or a happy ending which was never really very far away at all.

There are many good things in this recording. The double-bassoon comes through nicely in the movement just under discussion, and bass soloist Florian Boesch takes his part very well in the following Herr, lehre doch mich, with a nice balance between trepidation and resignation and without hamming things up at all. There is charm and beauty in both Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen and Ihr habt nu Traurigkeit, and atmosphere and character in the stealthy choral singing of Denn wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt. This is by no means a recording without big wads of redeeming features, but the tensions and contradictions remain a constant worry, and this was always going to have to struggle in becoming a first choice as a library reference. If you are interested in a performance which takes the score more at face value and seeks fresh authencity from the roots up, then you could do worse than Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s recording on his Soli Deo Gloria label (review). John Quinn worried about the speed of the last movement in this recording, and this is one opening in which Norrington is more measured. Gardner’s 1990 Philips recording might do you better if you prefer a better disciplined conclusion, but the SDG version is by no means chaotic. Whatever its wrinkles, what you gain from Gardiner’s performance is that feeling of humanity which Brahms surely intended. Roger Norrington’s abilities and sincerity are beyond question, but in this case the imposition of single-minded artifice remains one step sideways too many.

Dominy Clements

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