Brahms has seldom
been an unambiguously admired presence in Parisian concert halls.
In 1964 when Karl Richter arrived to conduct the German Requiem
he must have been fretful at the nature of the orchestral and
choral responsiveness that awaited him. It was, to be frank,
variable. The big choir is enthusiastic though inclined to be
rather blustery though the orchestra is on better behaviour
of big choral works seems to have been in its infancy in the
French capital. Despite Truffaut and the denizens of the Nouvelle
Vague the director and crew of this epic opus seem to be
in the dark – cinematographers were sorely needed on that night
in April 1964. Camera pans are unsteady and verging sometimes
on the shambolic. The shots of the choir pick out individual
group members, linger, withdraw, and then shudder laterally
to take in, say, the basses. At one point I noticed two of the
men share a surreptitious joke – well, at least they enjoyed
were of the traditional-ponderous type. To unsympathetic auditors
the first movement will seem like an agony – marmoreal and sculpted
from living, oozing heavy clay. But his view is consistent and
perceptive; if you enjoy the heavy and heroic approach you will
perhaps admire Richter’s way with Brahms. I can’t say I enjoyed
it in the way that I enjoy Richter’s Bach but that’s another
matter. The slow and the inexorable are constants of the performance.
Fortunately we also have the husband and wife team of Evelyn
Lear and Thomas Stewart. She’s inclined to be book-bound, whereas
he’s in his best stentorian pose, barrel-chested and quizzing
the audience. Both sing splendidly; he’s steady, warm but yielding
and affecting. He shows the virtues of singing straight here
– something one or two of the present crop of native German
singers have not appreciated in this work. He doesn’t over-inflect
or subject the line to affected colouration. Lear is similarly
convincing, despite her reliance on the score. She’s eloquent
and avoids mannered characterisation – no crooning here; several
of her elders failed to avoid this trap.
powerfully in control. He smiles once and takes a couple of
handkerchief breaks – well deserved in the heat of the lights.
There is more however.
The Orchestre Philharmonique et Choeurs de l'ORTF in full rig
but without audience plays Wagner under Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt.
His expansive gestures encourage the orchestra to give of their
very best. It’s difficult to take one’s eyes off Schmidt-Isserstedt
so athletic and debonair is he. The excerpts reveal a Wagner
conductor of the highest gifts. The camera work is unobtrusive
here though there is very occasional picture degradation.
As before in this
new batch of releases the essay is integral to the DVD; the
booklet thus houses only track details. As I complained in my
previous review of this latest batch of releases I’d rather
read a text than squint at it on screen, clutching at directional
arrows to turn “pages.” If this is the new tomorrow I want yesterday.
This is a difficult
DVD to evaluate. Technical frailties and camera limitations
lessen the impact of the Brahms, but it does preserve Richter’s
steady-as-she-goes approach to the Requiem. Schmidt-Isserstedt
footage is rare and always to be savoured.
See also Review
by Colin Clarke