Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (1865-68) [51:03]
Lore Binon (soprano); Tassis Christoyannis (baritone)
Flemish Radio Choir; Brussels Philharmonic/Hervé Niquet
rec. 16–20 March 2015, Flagey, Brussels, Belgium
German text; Dutch, English and French translations included
EVIL PENGUIN RECORDS CLASSIC EPRC0019 [51:03]
After enjoying Hervé Niquet’s recording of the Fauré Requiem so much a few months ago (review), I was delighted to receive this follow-up disc. This is the second in a series of five, each of which is to contain a setting of the Requiem.
No, there’s no mistake in the heading to this review: this performance of Ein deutsches Requiem really does last for just 51 minutes. I was reared on performances such as those by Klemperer, who takes a pretty “traditional” 68:44 (review) and only recently I warmly welcomed a performance by Mariss Jansons which lasts for 67:30. So, as you might expect, my eyebrows shot up when I saw Niquet’s timing.
I decided to use as my main comparator Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s 2008 live recording (review). He is a conductor who often, though by no means invariably, adopts challenging tempi but his performance plays for 64:54, which is not too far adrift from Klemperer or Jansons. His performance is live, whereas the Niquet recording was made under studio conditions, I think. Furthermore, Gardiner has the period instruments of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique while the Brussels Philharmonic use modern instruments so far as I know. However, my reason for selecting Gardiner is that, excluding performances that use piano accompaniment, his choral forces come closest amongst versions that I know to those employed by Niquet. The Flemish Radio Choir comprises just 35 singers (10/9/8/8). Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir was slightly larger: he had 46 voices at his disposal (17/10/8/11).
I think it’s sensible to deal straightaway with the question of tempo since this may be a major issue for some – perhaps many – collectors. As you may expect from the overall timing, Niquet generally adopts tempi that are faster – and sometimes significantly faster - than most of us are used to hearing. I must admit, however, that once I’d listened to the performance a couple of times I was not as troubled as I thought I might be by many of the fast speeds. I think that Niquet “gets away” with his swift speeds because he has an expert, flexible and responsive professional choir at his disposal. I have never heard the fugue in Movement VI – ‘Herr, du bist würdig’ – taken at such a lick. By comparison even Gardiner is pretty steady – he takes the section at a definite four-in-a-bar whereas Niquet must be beating in two so swift is the speed. Niquet’s speed really is too hasty yet his fine choir and orchestra never sound under pressure and I found the result stimulating; I warmed to it. The vivace section that precedes that fugue – ‘Denn es wird die Posaune schallen’ – really blazes in Niquet’s hands; it’s tremendously exciting.
More controversial, I suspect, may be Niquet’s way with the second movement. Gardiner, like most conductors, imparts a steady tread to the march. Niquet is surprisingly brisk and there’s no doubt that the music lacks its usual gravitas. Furthermore, there’s not as much contrast as usual between the slow march and the lighter and fleeter section, ‘So seid nun geduldig, lieben Brüder’, though the latter is nicely done by Niquet and his team. However, for me Niquet’s approach pays a dividend. When Brahms repeats the whole march section I often find my heart sinking, much though I love this work, at the prospect of another trudge through the march; you don’t get that feeling with Niquet. Sadly, however, ‘Aber des Herrn wort’ is far too briskly despatched by Niquet; the moment goes almost for nothing. With Gardiner it’s a great proclamation, as it should be. The two conductors adopt almost identical speeds for the subsequent fugue, swift but joyful.
The third movement, too, brings pros and cons. I don’t care for the way Niquet rushes the short passage ‘Ich hoffe auf dich’ – Gardiner is much more expansive here and much more eloquent as a result. What I have come to like, however, is Niquet’s very fast treatment of the fugue on ‘Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand’. I suspect that most listeners will feel, as I did first time round, that it’s impossibly fast but Niquet’s superb choir sound completely at ease. The fast speed conveys a sense of exaltation that’s completely in keeping with the words.
I have to admit, however, that there are some aspects of Niquet’s interpretation to which I can’t reconcile myself – or at least not so far. Movement V, with its gorgeous soprano solo, is a grievous disappointment. Niquet adopts a fast speed that I’m afraid I find perverse because it allows no sense of repose. So whereas I came to admire his tempo for the fugue at the end of Movement III because it seemed to me to accord with the words, here precisely the opposite is the case. You’ll appreciate how swift Niquet is from the fact that the movement whizzes by in a mere 4:40 whereas Gardiner, who paces the music with much greater understanding, takes 7:28. Incidentally Mariss Jansons, whose live performance I so much admired recently takes 6:59. Niquet has a decent soprano in Lore Binon – though she’s given little chance to phrase expressively – and Katharine Fuge sings well for Gardiner but I’m afraid I’ve been rather spoiled by Jansons’ wonderful soprano, Genia Kühmeier.
The other movement which causes me a particular problem is the last one. When I first heard Gardiner’s recording I was disconcerted by the fast speed that he adopted at the start of the movement and Niquet’s pace is almost identical. At the passage beginning ‘Ja, der Geist spricht’ there’s no tempo change marked – at least, not in the vocal score – but some easing is customary in order to realise the expressive value of this wonderful section. Niquet follows the “letter of the law” here and maintains his speed almost without modification. It’s a clear-eyed approach to one of the most deeply-felt parts of the entire work, yet I don’t think it’s an approach that’s devoid of feeling. Gardiner, by contrast, slows down considerably for this section and I’m not sure that approach is wholly convincing either. For me, Mariss Jansons paces the whole movement much more convincingly than either Gardiner or Niquet.
I’ve focused a lot on pacing because I think that’s a key factor in judging Hervé Niquet’s interpretation. As I’ve indicated, the Flemish Radio Choir rises to all the challenges. In fact their contribution is outstanding and they need not fear comparison with Gardiner’s equally fine Monteverdi Choir. The studio recording brings them closer than the Monteverdi Choir which means there’s great clarity and impact to their singing. The Brussels Philharmonic plays very well indeed though the timbres of Gardiner’s period instruments add an extra dimension. The one person I haven’t mentioned is Niquet’s baritone, Tassis Christoyannis. I don’t believe I’ve heard him before but I was very impressed. He has a splendid voice including a very easy top register, I preferred him to Mathew Brook, who sings for Gardiner.
In an introductory note Hervé Niquet writes that “it is pivotal to recognize that there is no sadness on these pages, but an unspeakable kindness immersed in tender melancholy … And please no decorum; this is a concert piece foreign to all incense and mausoleum.” There can be no doubt that Niquet has approached this great score with a fresh pair of eyes – but not seeking in any way to be controversial for the sake of it, I believe. I don’t agree with every conclusion he has reached but I respect greatly his approach to the work and he’s certainly made me think afresh about Brahms’s great masterpiece. I thought I knew it very well but it’s good to have one’s ideas challenged.
Even though it is splendidly performed and excellently recorded I don’t think this could be a library choice for Ein deutsches Requiem. However, I have found listening to this recording a very stimulating process. Controversial it may be, but I think that anyone who cares about this wonderful work should hear Niquet’s thoughtful and thought-provoking version.