BRAHMS Ein deutsches Requiem
RCA Red Seal 88697720662
Whatever its unconventionalities of text and setting, Brahms’s German Requiem has never lacked for performances since its premiere in Bremen 143 years ago. Recordings, too, have been plentiful – their variety of size and scale reflecting the breadth and scale of interpretations encountered during the composer’s lifetime. As a pioneer of the movement still referred to as ‘authentic,’ Nikolaus Harnoncourt might be expected to tackle things his way, but what most impresses is the extent to which he has reconciled innovation with tradition in what is among the most arresting of recent accounts.
So, in the opening movement, Harnoncourt stresses the sombreness but also the clarity of Brahms’s scoring for lower strings, out of
which solo woodwind emerge to sound a more imploring note within the prevailing inwardness. The Arnold Schoenberg Choir does not sound overly large in number but feels as well suited to the intimacy here as to the surging fatalism of the second movement, whose ominous intensity is well contrasted with its wistful central interlude then the affirmative response that rounds off this most substantial of the work’s sections.
His voice may no longer be at its freshest, but Thomas Hampson lacks nothing in insight or authority with his contribution to the third and sixth movements – the former culminating in a powerfully wrought account of its imposing fugue while, in the latter movement, the incisive energy brought to the work’s most dramatic passage never
pre-empts the momentum going into the Handel-like apotheosis.
In between, the fourth movement is an oasis of limpid repose, while its successor finds Genia Kühmeier a restrained yet affecting presence in this most personal section. Nor does the finale disappoint, Harnoncourt adopting a flowing though never hasty tempo for a movement that returns to the work’s opening music to confirm both its essential introspection and innate compassion.
In short, this is a recording that touches all the necessary bases in what is Brahms’s largest and most revealing conception. Recorded in their Musikverein home, the Vienna Philharmonic evinces a burnished eloquence that is well-nigh ideal for this music, the balance between chorus and orchestra yielding myriad details without detracting from the greater expanse. The booklet note, by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, admirably sets the work within its wider cultural context.
Allegiances to Otto Klemperer (EMI) and Claudio Abbado (DG) remain, but it would be wrong not to include Harnoncourt among
the most persuasive accounts of the German Requiem now available.