|Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem|
This is the fifth and final instalment in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Brahms cycle. All the symphonies have already appeared and links to our appraisals of those discs are given at the foot of this review. All the recordings in the series come from live performances in the concert series entitled Brahms: Roots and Memories in which the orchestral and choral music of Brahms was performed along with pieces by composers such as Bach and Schütz, whose music meant a great deal to him and influenced his own compositions.
Though I knew that Ein deutsches Requiem had been an integral part of the Roots and Memories tour I wasn’t entirely sure, when the discs first began to appear, whether a recording of Brahms’s choral masterpiece would be included. After all, the symphonies were new to the Gardiner discography but he had made a splendid studio recording of Ein deutsches Requiem in 1990. That has been a staple of my collection since it was first issued and it is currently available at mid-price in the DG Originals series (478 2119). It has been fascinating to compare and contrast these two versions.
One major difference between them lies in the actual sound. The venue for the 1990 recording, set down when Gardiner still recorded for Philips, is not stated but I strongly suspect it was a church. The impression one has is that one is sitting perhaps about a third of the way back in the nave of a church. The recording has a wide dynamic range and the quiet passages, such as the very opening, are very hushed indeed. The 2008 recording was made in a secular hall, Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, presumably during the International Festival. On this occasion one feels to be seated in the front stalls. The recording has much more punch and presence though sometimes the quiet passages aren’t as soft as one would wish. To my ears the choir’s opening phrases aren’t sung piano, for instance. This may be a function of the closer recording or it may be that the Monteverdi Choir of 2008 – some 47 strong – was projecting more strongly into a large hall and to an audience whereas their 1990 equivalents were singing just to microphones and in a more resonant acoustic. On balance I think I prefer the greater clarity and presence of the newer recording.
One difference between the two versions is that in 2008 both soloists were former members of the Monteverdi Choir whereas I think I’m right in saying that the 1990 soloists, Charlotte Margiono and Rodney Gilfry, were guests brought in for the occasion. Katharine Fuge was an excellent soloist on many occasions in Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. In this Brahms performance, in the gorgeous fifth movement, ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’, her singing once again gives a great deal of pleasure. The sound she makes is delicate and clear and I enjoyed her performance very much. Subjectively, I have a marginal preference for the richer, creamier tone offered by Charlotte Margiono in 1990. I’m more sure of where I stand when it comes to the two male soloists. Matthew Brook sings well though, once or twice he sounds a bit strained by top Fs. However, at times he does give the impression of striving a little too much for expression and I find that his voice does not sound as pleasing to the ear as does the rich, rounded timbre of Rodney Gilfry. Gilfry’s singing appears effortless throughout his vocal compass though it’s only fair to remind ourselves that he was recorded under studio conditions whereas Matthew Brook is heard ‘live’ when the adrenalin would have been flowing.
The choral singing and orchestral playing are first class in both recordings. However, one advantage of the new recording is that more detail can be heard – the grainy sound of the strings is much more evident in the opening bars, for example. The Monteverdi Choir is on top form and there’s a clear advantage in using a relatively small choir comprising entirely professional singers - and including some male altos with the extra cutting edge to their tone. The Monteverdis can achieve far more in terms of dynamic contrast, the use of accents and, above all, enunciation of the words than would be possible from even the most expert larger, amateur choir. This expertise is nowhere more evident than in the substantial fugues with which Brahms concludes the second, third and sixth movements. Several singer friends of mine have something of a blind spot with this work. They mutter that one gets to what seems like the end of one of these fugues only to turn over the page and find that Brahms has written quite a bit more music! I know what they mean; in the wrong hands these fugues can be stodgy and seem to be too much of a good thing. That’s emphatically not the case here – nor was it in Gardiner’s 1990 version either. I could give several examples but will confine myself to the fugue ‘Herr, du bist würdig’ with which the sixth movement ends. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard this done better. The build-up to the fugue is superb, for a start. ‘Der Tod ist verschlungen in den Sieg’ is vital and propulsive, with tremendous, exciting use of accents, while ‘Tod, wo ist dein Stachel?’ is delivered as a real challenge. Then the fugue itself has tremendous clarity and energy yet the music for ‘denn du hast alle Dinge erschaffen’ is lightly sprung. Gardiner makes some imaginative tempo modifications – these are unmarked, at least in my Peters Edition vocal score, but they make complete musical sense. This section of the work is done very well in 1990 but in 2008 Gardiner trumps his own ace.
Interpretatively, there’s not a great deal to choose between the two recordings though, as a general rule, there’s more urgency in the 2008 version and, where speeds differ, it’s usually the case that the newer performance is a little more fleet of foot. In most cases that’s beneficial but I do have one problem with the interpretation this time round. I have never heard such a swift tempo adopted for the opening music of the last movement, ‘Selig sind die Toten’. All other performances that I can recall are taken – or sound to be taken – at four beats to the bar whereas I’m sure Gardiner must have taken this passage at two in a bar. I’m afraid it sounds hasty. That tempo choice then means that there has to be a fairly significant shift at the wonderful, mystic passage, ‘Ja, der Geist spricht’. Though no tempo modification is marked in the vocal score at this point an easing of the speed is implied and is done by most conductors in my experience. On this occasion Gardiner pretty much halves the tempo at this point (1:36) and when the opening music returns (5:25) it is at the same fast speed which means that when the music from the very opening of the work is reprised (6:50) there has to be another marked slowing down. The tempo changes were much better managed in 1990, I think, and the speed for the opening bars of the movement, while by no means sluggish, was just a bit more expansive in 1990 and beneficially so. I don’t want to make too much of this but it may disconcert listeners so it’s right to mention it. That apart, the only other place where I was a bit unsettled was in the fourth movement, ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ where some may find the choir’s sforzandi at ‘mein Leib und Seele freuen sich’, mimicking the sforzandi in the accompaniment, just a bit too pronounced. However, in all other respects the vitality, freshness and insightful nature of the performance and interpretation are tremendously stimulating.
These Brahms CDs have all featured on the cover paintings by Sir Howard Hodgkin. The choice of artwork is very appropriate because these Hodgkin canvasses make striking use of colour. For me, one great achievement of this Gardiner Brahms cycle has been that it has enabled us to hear these familiar scores in a manner akin to looking at an old painting that has been cleaned so that the original colours are restored to their original vivid hue. That’s been the case once again with this recording of Ein deutsches Requiem which has opened my ears anew to this masterpiece which I love greatly. Hearing this superb, gripping new performance has been a most stimulating experience.
The previous releases in this series have also shone new light on Brahms’s music by coupling it with pieces by influential antecedents and a similar approach has been adopted here. The two Schütz pieces have been shrewdly chosen. Selig sind die Toten for unaccompanied choir comes from Geistliche Chormusik, Op 11 (1648) and sets the same words that Brahms chose for the last movement of Ein deutsches Requiem.Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen for double choir with organ is an earlier piece, found in Psalmen Davids, op. 2 (1619). It’s a setting of Psalm 84. Brahms used just the first six lines in the fourth movement of his work. Both of these Schütz pieces receive expert performances here.
I don’t believe that Gardiner’s 1990 recording of Ein deutsches Requiem is completely superseded by this newcomer; the earlier version has much to offer still and I shan’t be parting with my copy. However, this new version is very fine indeed. If you have to limit yourself to only one Gardiner recording then it would have to be this one. This SDG Brahms cycle has been an absorbing and distinguished series and the final instalment is as good and as important as its predecessors.