This recording of the Brahms Requiem is by no means new: it was reviewed
in DVD format by Peter Quantrill as far back as
2002. It now appears as a Blu-ray.
In the booklet note we read that Claudio Abbado has strong personal
memories of Ein deutsches Requiem
in this very hall. As a student
in Vienna he sang in a Karajan performance as a member of the Musikverein
chorus and later, at Karajan’s invitation, he conducted the work in the same
hall for his Vienna Philharmonic conducting debut. We are also reminded that
the first four movements of the work received their premiere performance in
this hall in 1867. Oddly, one salient fact seems to be missing from the
documentation: this present performance was given on the exact centenary of
Brahms’s death, which probably accounts for why Abbado looks so moved at the
end – happily, there’s a prolonged silence before the applause begins.
Abbado leads a dedicated performance, though at times I felt his tempi
were perhaps a little too measured. However, the conviction of the
performance – and the quality of the singing and playing – are such that I
found myself caught up in the performance with my slight and momentary
reservations swept aside. The singing of the two professional choirs is
first class. There are probably between 80 and 90 singers but when one has
professionals with all the focus of tone that they can bring then one
doesn’t need a larger choir. Indeed, there are positive benefits from not
having a larger choir in terms of flexibility and responsiveness. So there’s
a great deal of excellent singing to admire in the lower dynamic ranges but,
equally, the choir can turn on the power when necessary. The substantial
fugues that end the second, third and sixth movements are very well done;
there’s weight in the tone when required but also light and shade and the
incisive singing means that the fugues are sung with clarity. In a lesser
performance one can regret that Brahms didn’t prune the fugues somewhat:
that’s not the case here. The choir makes a significant contribution towards
the radiance of the concluding movement – though the conductor and orchestra
are equally important in achieving this.
Bryn Terfel is the baritone soloist. With his beard and long flowing locks
he looks just like one envisages an Old Testament prophet would look. The
trouble is that he also sings as though he were a Prophet. The full,
generous tone gives great pleasure and there’s no doubt that the singing is,
like Terfel’s bearing, very imposing. However, I feel that he tries too hard
at times to invest the music with emotional feeling. This is especially true
in the third movement; things are rather better in the sixth movement. I
found myself thinking of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the great Klemperer
recording; he, too, invests the music with great meaning but is less
obviously effortful in so doing.
Barbara Bonney, who sings from memory, as does Terfel, makes a lovely
sound in ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’. Her singing is pure and clear and she
seems much more relaxed and natural than Terfel yet she still sings with
fine expression. I enjoyed her performance.
The playing of the Berliner Philharmoniker is predictably fine. However,
the recorded sound, though perfectly acceptable, does rather favour the
singers so one can best appreciate the quality of the playing when the
orchestra is heard alone.
It’s good to see Claudio Abbado in action when he was in his prime before
illness affected him. This expertly moulded and deeply felt performance is
an excellent reminder of what a great conductor he was.
Previous review (DVD): Peter Quantrill
Masterwork Index: Ein