BRAHMS A German Requiem • Marin Alsop, cond; Anna Lucia Richter (sop); Stephan Genz (bar); MDR Leipzig R Ch & SO • NAXOS 8.572996 (64:13 Text and Translation)
A cursory survey of a dozen or so versions of this work reveals an average timing of somewhere between 63 and 66 minutes, and at least one very highly prized one—EMI’s 1961 recording by Otto Klemperer leading Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus—falls only slightlyRead more outside that range at just a hair over 69 minutes. That should come as no surprise, given that swift tempos were not one of Klemperer’s hallmarks. But some readings that may surprise you make Klemperer sound like the Road Runner. Giulini took 74:21 to get through the piece with the London Philharmonic at the Edinburgh Festival in 1978; and Richard Hickox, for his 1990 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on Chandos, took only 13 seconds less, 74:08. Think that’s slow? Try Tennstedt at 76:41 with the London Philharmonic in 1984, or Barenboim at 76:54 with the Chicago Symphony in 1993. But even Tennstedt and Barenboim are peppy and zippy compared to Furtwängler at 79:57 with the Stockholm Philharmonic in 1948. Yet none of the above comes close to taking the sloth award; that prize, I believe, goes to Sergiu Celibidache with the Munich Philharmonic in 1981 for managing to stretch the work out to a length of 87:46 (!), the musical equivalent of the estimated half-life of Plutonium 244 (80 million years).
Marin Alsop’s new version on the present Naxos CD could not be much closer to average, timing-wise, if it tried; at 64:13, it falls close to the median of the 63- to 66-minute range. There is, however, nothing average about the performance. This is not a reading that places undue emphasis on either the dark, gloomy shades of the score or on the solemnity and mystery of its subject. Alsop draws from her chorus an almost innocent-sounding freshness and lightness of texture that not only enhances transparency among the parts but reminds us that Brahms’s German Requiem is still the work of a relatively young composer of 35.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that the German Requiem, completed in 1868, is Brahms’s first attempt at a big-scale choral-orchestral work. Ten years earlier, in 1858, he had experimented with combining voices and orchestral instruments in his Begräbnisgesang, but the scoring called for only seven winds and two timpani. It’s also easy to forget that the German Requiem is the first work Brahms scored for a large orchestra following the disastrous reception of his First Piano Concerto in 1859. It took him almost 10 years to regain his courage with the Requiem, but once he did, four more choral-orchestral masterpieces followed in short order—the Alto Rhapsody, Schickalslied, Nänie, and Triumplied. These works all precede Brahms’s four symphonies and other big orchestral works—the Variations on a Theme by Haydn, the Violin Concerto, the Academic Festival and Tragic overtures, the Second Piano Concerto, and the “Double” Concerto.
Alsop’s approach to the German Requiem seems to acknowledge, intuitively, the freshness, openness, and unaffectedness of the music, and she communicates that to her choristers and soloists. Listen, for example, to Anna Lucia Richter’s “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (And ye now therefore have sorrow), sung with simple, yet sincere, purity that speaks more of hope—“but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice”—than it does of mourning the departed.
Stephan Genz’s baritone is equally well-suited to Alsop’s vision of the work. His voice has a lighter timbre to it than does, say, the voice of Bo Skovhus in his recording with Gerd Albrecht and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on Chandos. I said at the time (27:5), that Skovhus is possessed of one of those Scandinavian baritones that are rich, full and sensuous, a perfect match for the darkness of his part. This comparison is not to suggest that Genz doesn’t have the necessary vocal range or equipment for the job, in fact, quite the opposite. The lowest note Brahms writes for the solo baritone in the big “Herr, lehre doch mich” movement is a single B?, an octave plus a half-step below middle C, in bar 113, while the baritone’s tessitura for most of the movement lies above the staff of the bass clef, pretty much encompassing the lower to midrange for a tenor. Genz’s baritone has a sweetness and lyrical quality to it that makes Brahms’s words, “Lord, make me to know mine end,” sound a bit less the intimidating entreaty than it does when pronounced by Skovhus, or by Håkan Hagegård with the Chicago Symphony under James Levine, or by José van Dam with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karajan.
The MDR (Middle German Radio) Leipzig Choir sounds like they’ve sung Brahms’s German Requiem before, more than once in fact; either that, or they have been exceptionally well-prepared by choir master Nicolas Fink and exceptionally well-rehearsed by conductor Marin Alsop. Intonation is pitch perfect, enunciation is crystal clear, and collectively the choristers produce a perfectly balanced and integrated sound that issues forth with unstrained beauty of tone. The same may be said of the MDR Leipzig Symphony Orchestra, which supports and complements the vocal forces without ever overwhelming them.
Naxos has an older German Requiem in its catalog with Alexander Rahbari, dating from the early 1990s, but it’s hardly competitive with this new version by Alsop. As noted earlier, hers is a rather different take on this venerable score. She seems to be coming at it from the angle that it’s not a work of Brahms’s autumn, filled with the pessimism, lovelorn longing, melancholy, regret, and yes, annihilative impulses that characterize the composer’s later music, but rather a work of Brahms’s spring, filled with more comfort and hope than with sorrow and loss, and with more to look ahead to than back upon.
I like Alsop’s German Requiem quite a lot and can recommend it, not necessarily as an only or even primary version, but definitely as a complement to other favorites.
German Requiem, Op. 45by Johannes Brahms Performer:
Anna Lucia Richter (Soprano),
Stephan Genz (Baritone)
Middle German Radio Symphony Orchestra,
Middle German Radio Chorus Leipzig
Period: Romantic Written: 1854-1868; Austria
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Superb performanceOctober 15, 2013By Cynthia C. (Philadelphia, PA)See All My Reviews"Not much to say except superb. Conducting excellent and choir beautiful."Report Abuse