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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op.45 [62.03]1
Burial Song, Op.13 [5.36]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Requiem, K626(ed. Duncan Druce) [52.33]2
Masonic Funeral Music, K477 [3.36]
Ave verum corpus, K618 [3.44]4
1Lynn Dawson (soprano); 1Olaf Bär (baritone); 2Nancy Argenta (soprano); 2Catherine Robbin (contralto); 2John Mark Ainsley (tenor); 2Alastair Miles (bass);
124Schütz Choir of London: London Classical Players/Sir Roger Norrington
rec. St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London, September 1991 (Mozart); Studio No 1, Abbey Road, London, March 1992 (Brahms)
VIRGIN VERITAS 9125662 [57.53 + 67.59]

Sir Roger Norrington’s account of the Brahms Requiem is over twenty years old now, but it still has the ability to surprise and to shock. Shock, because the approach to the work seems to be so totally wrong-headed. One has no objection to the use of period instruments in music of this era. Indeed they can frequently add something to our understanding; but it is essential that, if they are used, additional and extraordinary care is taken to ensure that the internal orchestral balance between sections is correct. That simply is not the case here. Take just a few examples: in the second movement, Denn alles Fleisch, the main sarabande melody of the movement on the violins is almost inaudible when set against the accompanying detached wind chords. The result is that the work proceeds in an almost percussive style like one of those records where the performer is left to fill in the solo melodic line himself. Even worse is the big orchestral outburst after the baritone solo Und ich davon muss in the third movement, where the soaring violin line - which generates much of the development of the music that follows - is simply drowned out by the heavy organ and brass which accompany it. In the section describing the last trumpet, the fizzing string figurations which add so much excitement to the music are clear enough when nothing else is playing, but are then immediately submerged as soon as the choir and organ enter. The organ is also far too forward in the balance in places, dominating where it should accompany. The timpani in the second movement assume centre-stage during the choir’s statements of the chorale tune which is certainly dramatic but effectively drowns out the tune itself. What this all comes down to is that when period instruments are employed extreme care must be taken to ensure that the musical argument intended by the composer can be clearly heard. This is simply not the case in this performance/recording. Some critics, who are familiar with the work in more traditional readings, hailed this Norrington recording as a fresh experience; but one seriously questions how often their own memories were supplying the aural information that on this disc is simply obscured by the numerous faults of internal balance.
 
The ‘fresh experience’ might also be said to derive from Norrington’s general approach to the work, with brisk tempos adopted throughout. There is almost no really slow music here. Indeed sometimes the results are almost frisky. “Ich habt nun Traurigkeit” sings Lynn Dawson, but there is no sense of sorrow in the music at this speed, simply a beautiful melody being sung in an emotional vacuum. The fast speeds don’t help the strings to give weight to their tone, either - a problem exacerbated by Norrington’s insistence on vibrato-less playing. I am not going to enter into the vexed question of whether vibrato should be employed in music of the nineteenth century, but it is certainly the case that it was employed by players - Cecil Forsyth in his Orchestration published in 1914 devotes some time to the question, and remarks that “Curses did not kill it. Both the beautiful sort and the sort that resembles a nanny-goat in distress continue to be heard in our midst … It is all a matter of taste.” By the way, I make no apology for citing Forsyth in this context; his textbook gives many valuable insights into orchestral style at the beginning of the twentieth century.
 
It is I think uncontestable that vibrato would have been employed by many string players in the nineteenth century, maybe not all the time but certainly to add intensity to more sustained lyrical passages. Norrington’s speeds hardly allow for such passages to exist in the score, but it is also notable that composers when they bothered to specify the numbers of players in the orchestra universally preferred a larger body of violins than we get here. The resulting sound is simply scrawny in places.
 
Norrington’s approach is not helped by the singing of his soloists. Lynn Dawson begins by eschewing vibrato at the beginning of her solo, but her better instincts soon take over and she delivers many passages with a warmth that is at odds with the chilly sounds that surround her. Olaf Bär never even attempts to sing without vibrato, which is evident from his very first entry. The fact that he fails to make anything much of his chilling line Und ich davon muss is the fault of Norrington’s speed, continually pushing ahead, rather than of involvement on the part of the singer. The choral singing is fine, although the body of singers is small for a work on the grand romantic scale and certainly smaller than Brahms would have expected from the German choral societies of his day. What all this comes down to is that the body of tradition in a work like the German Requiem has real validity. One does not hanker after the marmoreal funereal treatments that turn the work into a Victorian Gothic monument, but one does expect the music to be set before us as a work of mourning and consolation, not simply as a set of pretty tunes. Sadly, the latter is rather the impression that Norrington’s account leaves, even when the ‘pretty tunes’ can be properly heard. What we are given here is not so much a cleaning off of old varnish, but a substantial amount of the paint has been removed as well to give us a view of the individual strands in the bare canvas - not an inspiring sight.
 
In his recordings of Beethoven, Norrington has insisted on the importance of fidelity to Beethoven’s metronome markings. Brahms too added metronome markings to his score of the German Requiem. It is true that some of these are surprisingly fast by the standards of many performances but Norrington often pushes ahead even of these. This tends to undermine his contention that the composer’s metronome markings should always be respected. In an article written a year after the Brahms score was published, Wagner as a conductor made some pertinent observations about such markings: “Whenever I heard of a foolish tempo in a performance of my Tannhäuser, for example, my recriminations were always parried by the plea that my metronome marks had been followed most scrupulously. So I saw how uncertain must be the value of mathematics in music, and thenceforth dispensed with the metronome … The correct speed for any piece of music can be determined only by the special character of its phrasing.”
 
The Norrington approach works better in the Mozart Requiem which comes as a coupling in this two-CD box. Mozart left the work incomplete at his death, and we are usually given the completion made by his pupil Süssmayr - although how much of the latter’s work derives from Mozart’s indications is unclear. What we are given here is a new version by Duncan Druce, who has made use of some sketches by Mozart which Süssmayr ignored. These are most noticeable in the Lacrymosa, where Druce considerably expands on the traditional conclusion which Süssmayr wrote to Mozart’s opening bars, to very good effect. The closing Amen fugue starts rather baldly but builds to a thrilling climax which seems to anticipate the end of the Gloria in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in its continual ratcheting up of the tension - not particularly Mozartian, but most enjoyable nonetheless. However Druce does eliminate the orchestral postlude to the Benedictus, one of Süssmayr’s best contributions and a passage which one misses. Elsewhere Druce makes a number of small corrections and amendments to the Süssmayr score, but none are conspicuous here. At one point Druce seems to be quoting from Mozart’s well-known setting of the Laudate Dominum, but this is quite in order in the context.
 
Again we have Norrington insisting on the removal of vibrato, and here unlike in the Brahms the singers largely go along with this. The tones produced by both the women sound distinctly like boys’ voices; and neither John Mark Ainsley nor Alastair Miles sound at their best, as one would imagine they might if allowed greater freedom. Norrington’s speeds are again on the fast side, but the results in the double fugue of the Kyrie are thrilling and the pacing does not seem as wilful as it does in the Brahms. With Mozart’s smaller orchestra, the problems of balance between strings and wind is not so troublesome either. Only in the Rex tremendae and Dies irae do we miss the rushing violin counterpoints which are submerged by the characterful brass and basset horns. Druce seems to give more prominence to the latter than one finds in the Süssmayr version, which is welcome. The trombone solo in the Tuba mirum sounds no more effective here than in the traditional edition. I know that Mozart himself wrote that the opening phrase should be played on the trombone, but did he really intend that the instrument should continue thereafter to play as an obbligato with the bass soloist in passages that don’t seem to suit the style of the trombone at all? He never uses trombones in this manner in any of the other works in which he employs them. Cecil Forsyth in his book on Orchestration correctly describes the result as a “tuba dirum”. This is a point at which one might welcome a more interventionist approach by a modern editor.
 
Nevertheless this is an enjoyable traversal of the score, with plenty of character and many points of illumination. It is just a pity that it now comes coupled with such a thoroughly unrecommendable reading of the Brahms. There are some useful fill-ups on both CDs. The Brahms comes coupled with the Burial Song, finely delivered by the choir and here - without strings in the orchestra - the balance ceases to be a problem. Similarly in the Mozart Ave verum corpus, with strings only in the accompaniment, the results are beautiful. In the Mozart Masonic funeral music once again one is confronted by a lack of parity between the strings and wind. The latter play very characterfully, but the string figurations are very backward and ill-defined. 
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Masterwork Index: Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem

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