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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (1865-1868)
Valentina Farcas (soprano); Matthias Goerne (baritone)
State Choir Latvija
Deutschekammerphilharmonie Bremen/Paavo Järvi
rec. live 10 April, 2018 at Bremen Cathedral, Bremen, Germany
Subtitles: German (original language), English, Korean, Japanese
Sound format: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD MA 5.0; Picture format: 1080i 16:9
Reviewed in stereo
C MAJOR/UNITEL Blu-ray 753304 [71 mins]

Ein Deutsches Requiem is in so many ways typical of the often paradoxical Johannes Brahms, as it is a work both revolutionary on the one hand but conservative on the other. The text of the piece is in German, not Latin as is typical of other Requiems, especially those leading up to its time. It is taken from the German Lutheran Bible but mainly steers clear of sectarian bias. The focus of the work is to offer comfort and solace to the living, not prayers for the souls of the dead. In addition, it never mentions the name of Jesus, and it is only in the last of the seven movements that it makes reference to Christian redemption via Christ's death, and not in a particularly direct way at that. Needless to say, it does not follow an established pattern of a ceremony, like that of the Requiem Mass. Thus Brahms takes a contrary path here that veers sharply away from previous approaches in this genre. Yet, for all its unorthodox, even radical textual features, it is musically rather conservative, a characteristic which no doubt allowed the work to achieve immediate success.

Originally, Brahms conceived the Requiem in six movements and finished it by August, 1866. It is rather appropriate that this live performance emanates from the Bremen Cathedral because that was the venue of the premiere of the six-movement version on 10 April, 1868. There had been an earlier partial performance of the work, just its first three movements, in Vienna in 1867. In May, 1868 Brahms added what became the fifth movement of the work and the premiere of the final, seven-movement version took place in Leipzig on 18 February, 1869. It is said Brahms wrote the Requiem for his mother, who died in 1865. But there is also reason to believe that the death of his friend Robert Schumann in 1856, and Brahms' lingering grief from it, was also a factor. Perhaps both played an equal role.

Whatever the case, we have a fine performance here from the very busy Paavo Järvi and the quite talented German Chamber Philharmonic Bremen and Latvian State Choir. Though the timing given for the disc in the heading is 71:25, the performance itself lasts 66:39 according to the album booklet, which discounts time for the opening applause and preparation as well as for closing accolades and credits. That makes this a fairly brisk reading of the Brahms Requiem compared with more centrist approaches which typically yield a timing of around seventy to seventy-two minutes. Yet, Järvi is hardly extreme in his tempos, as evidenced by at least two other performances in my collection that are faster—and both are pretty effective efforts. I'll talk more about this later when I deal with the competition on disc.

In this performance Järvi and company impart a vital, rather spirited approach to the work, generally eschewing ponderous avenues without lightening the music's emotional impact. Thus, what might come across as a somewhat solemn first movement, sounds gently consoling here and has an uplifting sense as well, the tempo slightly brisker than usual and Järvi's phrasing warmer. The ensuing panel, also with a relatively lively tempo, comes across in a richly Romantic vein too, but Järvi and his forces go on to storm the heights in the latter half's faster music, imparting a passionate, fiery manner. The third movement usually draws the best out of most conductors, or so it seems to me. Brahms wrote a truly magnificent ending to this panel (Der Gerechten Seelen...), and the singers and orchestra rise to the occasion on a grand scale here, delivering a thrilling, well detailed account, where the many vocal and orchestral lines emerge clearly and mostly in proper balance. That said, not everything comes through perfectly—it is a live performance, after all—but it is very excellent still and in fact I haven't heard this ending surpassed in any other recording.

It is in this movement too that we first hear from the male soloist, Matthias Goerne, who sings brilliantly and with great commitment, his rich baritone voice and fine dramatic skills making his contribution most effective. In the following panel the chorus and orchestra find the right sense of contrast in this serene, rather perky account. Valentina Farcas, who possesses a very attractive soprano voice, quite in an angelic, lighter sort of way, is very compelling in her less imposing manner in No. 5. Hearing this movement makes you realize why Brahms needed to add it to the work to give it greater structural balance.

The final two movements in many ways are the hardest to bring off effectively, but Järvi and company really shine throughout both. Goerne once again exudes passion and commitment in No. 6 and in the often stormy but ultimately glorious music of the latter half the Latvian chorus and Bremen ensemble unite to wring the most from it. In the final movement the music comes across beautifully, divulging a fine sense of consolation and warmth. This is a most impressive account of the final movement to crown this superb performance.

The camera work and picture quality are excellent, and the sound reproduction is especially outstanding, quite an accomplishment because I would guess the reverberation-rich acoustics of the Bremen Cathedral, with its stone structure, multiple pillars, narrow interior and overall odd shape, would offer challenges to any engineering team.

As for the competition, not surprisingly, it is very deep in this work, although on video there are just a few rival efforts. I have Christian Thielemann with the Bavarian Radio Chorus and Munich Philharmonic on a C Major Blu-ray disc, which is very good. But Thielemann's 80 minute or so performance often stretches the music to its limits and perhaps sometimes beyond them. Two other performances on video by Gergiev and Welser-Möst, respectively, are not in my collection. But the Brahms Requiem is one of those works you don't have to SEE to fully enjoy, and so in the realm of the CD Paavo Järvi gets formidable challenges from James Levine (RCA) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (and Kathleen Battle and Håkan Hagegård); John Eliot Gardiner (Soli Deo Gloria) with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir; Marin Alsop (Naxos) with the MDR Leipzig Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra; and finally Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi) with the Orchestre des Champs Elysées, La Chapelle Royale and Collegium Vocale. I have four or five others and some of them are also quite fine, but the four alternatives mentioned here are the best among them. Gardiner and Alsop are the two I referenced earlier that have faster performances than Järvi's. Of these four, I would slightly favor Gardiner and Levine, though neither is clearly better than Järvi. So, if you want video, definitely go with this new effort by Paavo Järvi, and his performance is also competitive with the best on CD.

Robert Cummings

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