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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op 45
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
André Morsch (baritone);
Cappella Amsterdam
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century/Daniel Reuss
rec. live, May 2018, De Doelen, Rotterdam, the Netherlands
German text & English translation included
GLOSSA GCD921126 [70:26]

This recording of Ein Deutsches Requiem features a choir of 42 singers (12/10/10/10) and an orchestra that has a string choir of 8/8/6/6/3 plus the harps and other forces specified by Brahms. Since the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century (OEC) plays on period instruments, a logical comparator for me was the 2007 live recording on which Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (review). Gardiner’s forces are not identical but broadly similar in size: he has a choir of 46 (17/10/8/11); his strings are 12/10/8/7/5.

In Glossa’s interesting and very thorough booklet note Clemens Romijn rightly draws attention to the performance conventions and conditions of Brahms’ days, including generally smaller concert halls and instruments that were differently constructed compared to those of our own time. In particular Mr Romijn discusses tempi. Apparently, metronome marks for each movement of Ein Deutsches Requiem were noted down by Carl Reinthaler, who prepared the first (full) performance for Brahms in 1868: these are listed in the booklet. Romijn points out that these metronome marks imply generally fairly swift tempi for the slow movements and “rather moderate” speeds for the quicker ones. He says that Reuss’s performance “does not strictly adhere to these tempo markings but has certainly been inspired by them”. I checked several of the speeds and found that Reuss is generally pretty close, except that the metronome for the first movement is given as crotchet = 80, whereas I measured the speed adopted at closer to crotchet = 60. Overall, though, I don’t think that listeners will find anything particularly radical in Daniel Reuss’s tempo selections.

The recording was made at concerts – rather informal concerts, to judge by a booklet photo – given in a Rotterdam church. To some extent, I think the performance has been defined by the acoustic in which it was recorded. This appears to be quite resonant and while the resonance is welcome in some respects, I do think it often clouds the clarity of what we hear. Gardiner’s performance, by contrast, was recorded in the secular environment of Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. The SDG recording is more present and clearer, especially when it comes to the orchestra. Gardiner’s strings are much more prominent than the strings of the OEC on this new recording. Mind you, the ORR string sound is quite wiry and I can imagine that some listeners may not entirely like it.

So, the SDG recording has more impact but I think that the difference between the two performances is only partly explained by the recorded sound on the respective releases. Gardiner’s approach to the music tends to be much more dramatic and punchier whereas Reuss offers a mellow view of the score. I find that there are times when I prefer each conductor over the other. For instance, in the second movement, after the initial slow march, done well in both performances, there’s a tempo change for the section beginning ‘So seid nun geduldig’. The tempo marking is Etwas Bewegter (Somewhat more moving). Here Gardiner moves the music forward appreciably – perhaps he’s a fraction too hasty – but Reuss doesn’t give sufficient extra speed for my taste. Later in the same movement Gardiner makes ’Aber des Herrn wort’ a far more dramatic moment than Reuss and the fugue on ‘Die Erlöseten des Herrn’ is positively electrifying under Gardiner whereas Reuss takes the music more steadily, perhaps in deference to the acoustic?

In the third movement we hear the first of Reuss’s soloists, André Morsch. I don’t think I’ve encountered him before but I like very much what I hear. He has a firm, well focussed baritone and he delivers the words and music very well and with clarity. Matthew Brook sounded a bit effortful at times in the Gardiner recording but Morsch encompasses the upper reaches of Brahms’ vocal line comfortably. That said, Gardiner’s performance is more incisive overall and that’s especially evident in the fugue on ‘Die Gerechten Seelen’. Here Gardiner is appreciably quicker and his singers are dynamic and make the music joyful. By contrast, the Reuss performance sounds a bit muddy – I’m sure it’s the acoustic, not the performers – but also more earthbound.

In the fifth movement we encounter the soprano soloist. Katharine Fuge sings for Gardiner and she presents the solo very well. However, Carolyn Sampson offers even more, I believe. Her silvery voice is fuller than Miss Fuge’s and I appreciate both Sampson’s tonal quality and her greater expressiveness. She makes the movement radiant. In the following movement, you won’t be surprised to hear that when Brahms reaches the passage involving the Last Trump (‘Denn es wird die Posaune schallen’) it’s Gardiner who invests the music with real bite. I think it’s a combination of the acoustic and a slower tempo that inhibits the Reuss performance. The Monteverdi Choir positively spits out words like ‘Stachel’. Both conductors take the ‘Herr, du bist würdig’ fugue at a near identical speed. Reuss’s choir sings it very well but I think the Monteverdis find even more variety of expression there.

In the final movement, though, I have a clear preference for Reuss over Gardiner. When I reviewed the Gardiner release, I expressed great surprise at the very fast tempo he selects for the opening pages – and which he repeats when the material is reprised later. Not only does this sound quite wrong to my ears, it also has consequences later in the movement in terms of tempo modification. Reuss adopts a much more “traditional” speed. As a result, he arrives at that marvellous passage, ‘Ja, der Geist spricht’ at 2:01 whereas Gardiner gets there at 1:36. That’s quite a difference when we’re only talking about 39 bars. There’s no tempo change marked - at least not in the Peters vocal score – yet Gardiner has to slow down markedly for ‘Ja, der Geist spricht’ whereas Reuss is able to maintain a pretty consistent tempo. Listening to it again now, for the purposes of comparison, I remain uncomfortable with and unconvinced by Gardiner’s tempo; that’s a disappointment towards the end of what is otherwise a very fine performance of Ein Deutsches Requiem.
So, what to make of the Reuss disc? It has a lot going for it. He may not be as dramatic as Gardiner often is but many people will feel that’s no bad thing. His approach is warm, lyrical and thoughtful. His soloists are excellent. His choir sings very well indeed, though I wish their singing had been better defined by the recording. The orchestra’s playing is of a very high order and the mellow sound they produce collectively suits Reuss’s conception of the work to a tee. However, as with the choir, the excellence of their contribution is somewhat vitiated by the resonant acoustic which the engineers have not tamed sufficiently.

This, then, is a good account of Ein Deutsches Requiem, much of which I enjoyed, but I can’t regard it as a market leader.

John Quinn

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