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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein Deutsches Requiem op.45

Jessye Norman (soprano)
Jorma Hynninen (baritone)
London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Klaus Tennstedt (conductor)
Begrabnisgesang op.13

Schutz Choir of London
Londond Classical Players/Roger Norrington (conductor)
Est ist das Heil und kommen her op.29 no.1
Schaffe in mir, Gott op.29 no.2
Warum ist das Licht gegeben op.74

Choir of King’s College Choir, Cambridge/Philip Ledger (conductor)
Fest- und Gedenkspruche op.109

Stockholm Radio Choir/Eric Ericson (conductor)
Alt-Rhapsodie op.53*
Vier Gesange op.17

*Janet Baker (contralto)
London Symphony Chorus
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox (conductor)
Nänie op.82

New Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Wilhelm Pitz (conductor)
Triumphlied op.55**
Schicksalslied op.54
Gesang der Parzen op.89
Rinaldo op.50*

*Steve Davislim (tenor)
**Dietrich Henschel (baritone)
Ernst Senff Choir, Berlin
Dresden Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Michel Plasson (conductor)
Ten lieder, opp.42, 62, 93 and 104
Collegium Vocale Koln/Wolfgang Fromme (conductor)
Liebeslieder-Walzer opp.52 and 65

Elsie Morison (soprano)
Marjorie Thomas (contralto)
Richard Lewis (tenor)
Donald Bell (baritone)
Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin (pianos)
Zigeunerlieder op.103

Quatuor Vocal de Stuttgart/Marcel Couraud (conductor)
Recorded between 1957 and 2000 (no specific dates or locations given)
EMI CLASSICS 575 722-2 [five discs, 5h 42’]
Superbudget around £17


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‘Truly, Brahms was the most unhappy of great composers’. So observes the composer Hugh Wood, and the truth of this is most readily apparent in a section of his oeuvre that is less familiar now than it was in his own time. From his early days as director of various amateur choral societies, Brahms wrote works which catered for them, and the development of his musical language throughout his life is traceable with a clarity otherwise only possible in his output for keyboard. A contrast between earthly transience and a vaguely promised peace in the hereafter informs the emotional and musical content not just of the German Requiem but of the Song of Destiny, the Alto Rhapsody, Song of the Fates (Gesang der Parzen) and Nänie, not to mention many of the motets. The tension between these two states is particularly acute in the shorter choral works. Brahms is consistently reluctant to carry through musically the portents of woe and doom which his chosen texts prophesy, as if to do so would tempt fate, Mahler-like, in his own life. Quiet, major-key conclusions of apparent serenity in the face of loss and grief do not after a while ring very true but rather suggest a stoic and even fatalistic approach to life’s troubles.

The compilers have made some strange decisions in their selection from the company’s English, German and French catalogues. Take the Alto Rhapsody, poignantly done by Janet Baker; she was in good voice for this Virgin recording, but if only French EMI had called in her recording from 20 years earlier made with Sir Adrian Boult on superbly introspective form, currently lurking on an HMV Classics disc. Richard Hickox loses his way at the transition from Goethe’s despairing Harzreise in Winter to Brahms’s own text for the consolatory chorale, which thereby adds support to Wood’s contention that it is ‘the weakest section of the piece… only achieving a certain sanctimoniousness’.

Klaus Tennstedt’s German Requiem is firmly in the reverential mould of Celibidache, Lehmann, Haitink and others, if more inclined than them to sudden conflagrations of intensity. So the sectional structure of Denn wir haben kein bleibende Statt with its many tempo changes convinces more successfully than Tennstedt’s restlessness in Denn alles fleisch ist wie als gras. Jessye Norman is too voluptuously voiced for Ihr hab nun ein Traurigkeit, but her breath control enables her to loft lines where others break them halfway through. Hynninen, like Bryn Terfel, Wolfgang Brendel and David Wilson-Johnson, threatens fire and brimstone more effectively than he offers peaceful consolation. The choir's first entry is disappointingly muffled and the engineers continue to do them few favours. They muster plenty of enthusiasm for the work's two great fugues (in the third and sixth movements) and their German is excellent. Their intonation is not as culpable as the Vienna Singverein on several versions, but nor is it anywhere near perfect. Brahms places such strenuous demands on the choir (possibly exceeding even those of the Missa Solemnis) that live recordings of the Requiem must nearly always be borne with a certain amount of patience. I have almost never heard a soprano section which can project the opening line of the concluding Selig sind die Toten with a clean, fresh forte immediately after the rigours of Denn wir haben kein bleibende Statt. The Eric Ericson Chamber Choir and Swedish Radio Choir manage it for Abbado, on DG and on TDK DVD, but the ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir (in the studio) do not.

The initial issue of Tennstedt’s German Requiem was paired with a fine Song of Destiny, cut from the same contemplative cloth. The compilers have passed over it in favour of a Plasson recording that is new to the UK but no more desirable for that. It’s more transparent, but then so is weak coffee: with Tennstedt (and Abbado, whose three recordings indicate his strong sympathy for the piece) you can taste the grains at the bottom of Brahms’s cup. What the compilers give with one hand they take away with the other: Plasson’s original coupling (with Rinaldo) of the funereal Begräbnisgesang is rejected in favour of Roger Norrington’s starker view. The volumes of German Baroque music by Schütz, Bruhns and others which covered Brahms’s library are brought to life again in the simplicity of the vocal writing, throbbing drum beats and portentous trombone lines.

Bernard Haitink’s two recordings of Nänie both offer greater contrasts and character than Wilhelm Pitz. If the slightly wobbly ladies of the Tanglewood Festival Choir (in the later one) are an acquired taste, they project Schiller’s tale of ancient woe with keen understanding. Even they, however, sound like a raggedy bunch compared to Robert Shaw’s magnificent Chorale for Toscanini’s still-unmatched Gesang der Parzen from November 1948. This time it is Goethe who harks back to Classical Greece for an evocation of the gods looking down from their Olympian heights to mourn humanity. The boomy sound accorded to Plasson hardly beguiles any more than the infamously dry Studio 8-H at NBC, and even that can’t disguise the muddy attack of Plasson’s Dresden forces and his rather generalised approach.

This is less of a problem in Plasson’s recordings of Triumphlied and Rinaldo, though mostly because the comparisons are much scarcer. Reasons for these works’ neglect aren’t hard to find: Triumphlied taps the patriotic-German part of Brahms’s psyche that is understandably less than fashionable these days and does so in a four-square way that provides ammunition for those who condemn its composer’s ‘bourgeois’ temperament. Nevertheless, its grandiose, Handelian choruses are enjoyable enough once in a while, and are (ironically) sung with gusto by Giuseppe Sinopoli’s Czech team on DG.

This set’s usefulness as a compendium of Brahms’s choral-orchestral works is however compromised by its sketchy coverage of the rest of his output for mixed voices. In no way could the charming Liebeslieder-walzer and Ziguener-lieder be classed as ‘choral’ yet they take up the whole of the fifth disc. They are sung here, as intended, by one voice per part, in elderly Electrola recordings and in a style that would not have sounded out of place in your grandparents’ parlour. If the compilers had to include these miniatures, they could at least have dug out the zippy set with Olaf Bär et al from 15 years ago. As it is, they edge out the vigorous Marienlieder op.22, the op.44 pair of motets, the op.37 triptych … and others. At least we have perhaps the finest of them all, Warum is das licht gegeben, which combines a Baroque structural rigour with aching, entirely modern harmonies in its setting of Luther’s song of penitent longing (you may be spotting a pattern here). Along with the two op.29s, it is piously delivered by King’s Cambridge, who eschew entirely the forceful delivery and dynamic extremes which make Marcus Creed’s discs with the RIAS Chamber Choir on Harmonia Mundi so memorable. These latter discs span almost all the unaccompanied music, as well as the gorgeous four songs op.17. If you wanted one stepping stone from the German Requiem to the rest of Brahms’s choral works this would be it, and it is more than competently done (with nicely balanced horns and harp: what an accompanimental stroke of genius!) by Hickox and his singers.

Though you can find better performances of everything on this set, its considerable virtue still lies in providing a cheap overview of the beauties and contradictions of an often overlooked body of work. Its greatest fault is one common to all EMI France’s compilation boxed sets, the lamentable lack of recording information, texts and translations.

Peter Quantrill

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