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Johannes BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)
Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op.45 [74.25]
Felicity Lott (soprano)
David Wilson-Johnson (bass-baritone)
Roderick Elms (organ)
London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. 1990, Church of St-Jude-on-the Hill, London. DDD
Texts included
CHANDOS CHAN10945X [74:25]

The German Requiem is both Brahms’ greatest choral work and a unique variation on the liturgical requiem. The work is not a setting of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead but the composer’s selection of Biblical excerpts dealing with the subjects of mortality and consolation. While it is not certain if the work was written for a specific person, it is probable that Brahms’ feelings regarding the deaths of his mother and of Robert Schumann contributed to its composition. Brahms’ texts progress from mourning to solace as the music’s tonal framework moves upward. A work of such musical and philosophical complexity requires a firm hand and the performance style of the many recordings ranges from thundering drama to almost Baroque clarity (review). In this version, now re-released on classic Chandos, Sir Richard Hickox takes a mostly moderate approach, although not without some thunder and lightning.

Brahms opens the German Requiem with a hushed statement of the words Selig Sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they that mourn) emphasizing the lower instruments of the orchestra (there are no violins in the movement). This is succeeded by the middle section Die mit Tränen säen, werden mit Freuden ernten (They that sow in tears will reap in joy), before a return to the opening. In this movement Hickox begins rather stolidly but his shift from F to D-flat in the central section is masterly and he ends with a truly warm-hearted feeling.

The second movement Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras (Then all flesh is as grass) shows Hickox coming into his own with deliberate but dramatic phrasing. Again, he makes a beautiful transition to the second section So seid nun geduldig (So be patient) before the repeat of the opening-the London Symphony woodwinds are especially notable here. This brings some light into the movement, preparatory to the powerful finale with Hickox ably contrasting the multiple melodic lines.

Herr, lehre doch mich (Lord, Teach me) is the opening text of the third movement. Here a baritone soloist asks what he shall believe in. The answer is Ich hoffe auf dich (My hope is in thee), which leads directly into a massive fugue on Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand (The righteous are in the hand of God) with a constant pedal of D major to add to the certainty. In the solo role David Wilson-Johnson has just the right tone for Brahms’ deep-hued music and ably progresses from the anguish to the certainty that the music demands.

The central movement Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely are thy dwellings) affords the necessary repose after the music of the previous movements and provides the pivot from anguish to consolation. Hickox handles these elements with skill and brings out the choral parts with great clarity.

Originally the German Requiem was presented (in 1868) with only six movements. The next year Brahms added what is now the fifth movement Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (You who are now sorrowful). This is scored for soprano solo accompanied by the chorus and winds with muted strings. The lightening of texture and acceleration of tempo prepare the listener for the dramatic sixth movement as the soprano sings of consolation where the baritone sang of anguish. Here Felicity Lott gives a splendidly textured rendition that is all one could desire.

In the sixth movement, Denn wir haben (Then we have) the baritone returns, turning from sorrow to the eventual consolation of heaven. In this section David Wilson-Johnson falls a little short of making the appropriate transition in feeling, although he is still vocally impressive. Like the third movement, the sixth ends with a mighty fugue and here Hickox again demonstrates the ability to produce great clarity in the choral texture, a talent he first demonstrated decades ago with the Richard Hickox Singers, and refined throughout his life.

Final consolation is achieved in the last movement, Selig sind die toten (Blessed are the dead). Where in the first movement the “blessed” were those who mourn, in the end the dead themselves are blessed in their final resting place. Brahms achieves this sense of finality by returning to the home key of F major, and, at the end of the movement, with a return of the music that opened the Requiem. Hickox brings the musical and philosophical strands together with a real sense of closure-a very satisfying conclusion to this major work.

As a performance this is a fine example of the art of Richard Hickox. The solo singing is exemplary on the part of Felicity Lott and sturdy as regards David Wilson-Johnson. But there are drawbacks - the 1990 sound quality is rather dull and sometimes muddy and while the playing of the London Symphony winds is quite fine, the rest of the orchestra only occasionally measures up to this standard. In short, not a library version of the German Requiem, but a fine account. Highly recommended for Richard Hickox admirers.

William Kreindler

Previous review: Michael Wilkinson



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