About this Recording
8.111342 - BRAHMS, J.: Deutsches Requiem (Ein) (Fischer-Dieskau, Grummer, Kempe) (1955)

Great Conductors: Rudolf Kempe (1910–1976)
Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45


Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg on 7 May 1833 and died in Vienna on 3 April 1897. He was the most significant and important German composer of the mid- to late nineteenth century, a figure who towered over the musical world in German-speaking countries. He had met and knew most of his leading contemporaries—Joachim, Cornelius, Raff, Hiller, Reinecke, Clara and Robert Schumann, Dvořák, Johann Strauss, Wagner—and was acquainted with their music. His compositions cover the whole spectrum excepting opera.

Brahms was 31 when his mother Christiane died in Hamburg, aged 76, on 2 February 1865. The idea of a large scale choral work in her memory may possibly have been sparked by this event but he never said as much at any time. It was during the months of February to April the following year, while he was in Karlsruhe that the work began to take shape. He had earlier selected suitable text passages from Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible. The original structure was to comprise six movements—No. 2, Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras having its roots in an abandoned Symphony in D minor dating from 1854–55, was added after the 1868 première in Bremen. Brahms finished the work at Baden-Baden during August later that year. The first occasion any of the music was heard in public was when the first three numbers of the Requiem were performed in Vienna on 1 December 1867.

The first performance of the new work (without No. 5) took place under Karl Martin Reinthaler (1822–1896) in Bremen on 10 April 1868. The missing fifth movement was composed during that summer and the whole six movements were later published. Thus the first complete performance of Ein deutsches Requiem was given at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig on 18 February 1869, conducted by Carl Reinecke. The work is scored for soprano and baritone soloists, SATB chorus and orchestra.

It is important to point out that use of the word German in the title is to show it bears no relation to the Roman liturgy but to the language of the Lutheran Bible, the cornerstone of so many German musical settings, so that the feelings and emotions are in no way simply of the dead but more in the manner of the bereaved. In selecting passages from both Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, Brahms displays more of a sense of meditation for the living and the dead, an embodiment of the Lutheran spirit.

In the dark, sombre but serene first movement Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they who mourn) Brahms omits violins, piccolo, clarinets, two horns, trumpets, tuba, and timpani entirely and subdivides the viola and cello part to create this sombre effect. The first three notes of the chorus introduce a motif that recurs in a number of forms throughout the movement. The second movement, Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras (For all flesh is as grass), opens in the manner of a slow march in triple time. The violins then enter in a high register, as if to emphasize the fact of their appearance at last. The timpani appear quietly, sounding ominous triplets. The mood then brightens with the words So seid nun geduldig (So now be patient), only for the march-like music to return. A triumphant outburst at the words Die Erlösten des Herrn werden wiederkommen (And the ransomed of the Lord shall return) is followed by a quiet ending. The baritone solo begins the third movement Herr, lehre doch mich (Lord, let me know mine end) with a darkly urgent recitative in dialogue with the chorus with words from Psalm 39 which describe man’s mortality. He is pleading for guidance. In reply the chorus asserts Ich hoffe auf dich (My hope is in thee), which Brahms sets in the form of a forceful fugue.

In the choral fourth movement Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely are thy dwellings) Brahms moves in to a new world harmonically and expressively. It opens and closes with a sublime meditation, interspersed by a fugal interlude. The fifth movement Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (And ye now therefore have sorrow) features the soprano soloist, but the contrast could hardly be more striking. Here, in a bright key, the soprano sings of maternal consolation, echoed by the equally reassuring words of the choral writing. The opening of the sixth movement Denn wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt (For here we have no abiding city) has the baritone soloist declaiming the prophecy of the coming Resurrection, followed in turn by a vast double fugue in which the chorus praise God with the words Herr, du bist würdig zu nehmen (Thou art worthy, O Lord). The final movement Selig sind die Toten (Blessed are the dead) concludes on an exultant note, linked back to the opening chorus.

The German soprano Elisabeth Grümmer (1911–1986) was born in Niederjeutz near Diedenhofen (now known as Thionville) in Alsace-Lorraine, then part of Germany. She spent her youth in Meiningen before training as an actress and making her stage début in 1938. She was advised by Karajan to study singing, which she did with Schlender in Aachen before making her operatic début as the First Flowermaiden in Wagner’s Parsifal in 1940. Two years later she joined the Duisberg City Theatre for a couple of seasons before becoming a member of the Städtische (later Deutsche) Oper in Berlin, a house she sang in until her retirement in 1972. In her early years she sang Ellen Orford in the first German production of Britten’s Peter Grimes. Grümmer made her London début as Eva in Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden in 1952 and the following year sang Agathe (Der Freischütz), Pamina (Die Zauberflöte) and Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier) with the visiting Hamburg State Opera Company at the Edinburgh Festival. In 1953 she first appeared at the Salzburg Festival and two years later during the Mozart bi-centenary celebration sang Ilia (Idomeneo) and Countess Almaviva (Le nozze di Figaro) at Glyndebourne. During the years 1957–61 she appeared at the Bayreuth Festival as Eva, Elsa (Lohengrin) and Gutrune. In addition in the late 1950s and throughput the 1960 she sang throughout all the principal European opera house before belatedly making her American début as the Marschallin (Der Rosenkavalier) at the New York City Opera, followed two months later at the Metropolitan as Elsa. As early as 1957 she had been appointed Professor of Voice at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, where she continued after her retirement. Grümmer used her warm, exquisite voice to admirable dramatic effect on stage proving herself an outstanding interpreter of Mozart and Richard Strauss in particular. Other rôles included Desdemona (Otello), Countess (Capriccio) and Donna Anna (Don Giovanni). She worked extensively in the concert hall and was a fine Lieder singer.

Christened Albert Dietrich Fischer (it was his father who conjoined his own mother’s maiden name of Dieskau to his own in 1934), was born in the Zehlendorf district of Berlin on 28 May 1925, his parents being teachers. His first recital was at the age of fifteen while still at school in January 1942. He then studied with the tenor Georg Walter, himself a renowned Lieder singer in his day. After military service he returned to Germany to study with Hermann Weissenborn and made his concert début in a performance of Brahms’s German Requiem in Badenweiler in 1947 as a very late replacement and without rehearsal. The turning-point in his career came in a new production by Heinz Tietjen of Verdi’s Don Carlos when he sang Posa at the Städtische (later Deutsche) Oper in Berlin under Fricsay to marked acclaim. He would appear at this house for over 35 years. The year 1949 saw Fischer-Dieskau singing at the Vienna State Opera as well as in the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. His reputation soon spread to Britain where Beecham engaged him for the baritone part in Delius’s Eine Messe des Lebens in London in June 1951, an occasion which proved memorable in every sense. Fischer-Dieskau’s first appearance at the Salzburg Festival took place in August 1951 when he sang Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. He returned to this festival in 1956 and continued yearly until 1967. He also appeared at the Bayreuth Festival during the years 1954–61 singing the Herald in Lohengrin, an unforgettable Wolfram in Tannhäuser, Kothner in Meistersinger and Amfortas in Parsifal. His American début took place in April 1955 with two concerts in Cincinnati, followed by further appearances in Minnesota and New York. In fact it was through the concert hall and recordings that Fischer-Dieskau’s American reputation was achieved since he never sang on the operatic stage on that continent. The baritone became a regular visitor to Britain either for recording purposes but also in the concert hall. He made his operatic début as a memorable Mandryka in Arabella at Covent Garden in 1965 and as Falstaff in Verdi’s opera two years later. He appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in August 1952, first toured Japan in 1963 and enjoyed a most successful tour of Israel in 1971. He undertook his first conducting assignment with the New Philharmonia Orchestra in London two years later. He would later conduct for his third wife, the soprano Júlia Várady.

On the operatic stage Fischer-Dieskau embraced mainly German and Italian rôles: these included Don Giovanni, Don Alfonso, Almaviva in Figaro, Barak in Die Frau ohne Schatten, Jochanaan in Salome, Olivier and the Count in Capriccio, Doktor Faust, Mathis der Maler, Wozzeck, Renato in Un ballo in maschera, and, finally in 1976, Hans Sachs. He also created the rôles of Gregor Mittenhofer in Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers (May 1961) and the title part in Reimann’s Lear (July 1978). But while Fischer-Dieskau’s operatic activities were significant, it is as a Lieder singer that he will be best remembered. His repertoire consisted of well in excess of a thousand songs, covering virtually the entire German repertoire. He also embraced French chanson with Debussy, Fauré and Milhaud among others. He recorded virtually his entire song repertoire and in doing so became the most prolific recording artist of his time. He also compiled The Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder (London, 1976), an autobiography Nachklang (Stuttgart, 1988), published in English as Echoes of a Lifetime (London, 1989), in addition to books on the Lieder of Schubert (New York, 1977) and Schumann (London, 1992), and on Wagner and Nietzsche (1976). In 1983 Fischer-Dieskau was appointed Professor of Voice at the Berlin Hochschule für Kunste and eventually retired from the concert hall in 1992 to spend the next few years teaching, conducting and painting. He possessed a virtually flawless vocal technique, as well as a remarkable ability to convey the right tonal colour and nuance of a musical phrase with a wonderful command of rhythm.

The German conductor Rudolf Kempe (1910–1976) was born in Niederpoyritz near Dresden. He first learnt the piano, then violin and oboe before studying the latter instrument at the Orchestral School of the Dresden Staatskapelle. In 1928 he was appointed first oboe in the Dortmund Opera Orchestra and the following year at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. His conducting début took place at the Leipzig Opera, directing Lortzing’s Der Wildschütz, serving as a répétiteur in that house between 1935 and 1939. He served for two years in the German army before joining the opera at Chemnitz as a répétiteur. In 1946 Kempe served for two years as Musical Director in Chemnitz but in 1949 was made General Musikdirektor of the Staatskapelle Dresden for a period of three years. Increasing problems with the Communist régime resulted in his moving to the Bavarian State Opera in Munich as music director in 1952. He made his London début with the Munich Company when they gave a season at Covent Garden in the autumn the following year. He won very favourable reviews for his conducting and later became a much loved guest conductor at that house until 1974. In 1960 the ailing Beecham asked Kempe to become associate conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, only for him to become its principal conductor the following year on Beecham’s death. He later became artistic director of the RPO until he left in 1975. Concurrently he was chief conductor of the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra (1965–72) and the Munich Philharmonic (1967–1974). His last all too brief position was that of chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the 1975–76 season. Kempe conducted the Ring cycle at Bayreuth during the years 1960–63 and also appeared at the Metropolitan in New York in the 1954–56 seasons, conducting Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, Arabella and Der Rosenkavalier. He was an outstanding interpreter of the German classics in the concert hall and much admired in Puccini and Verdi in the opera house. He was a first-rate orchestral trainer, always obtaining beautifully lucid playing allied to clarity of rhythm and sensitive phrasing. He shunned publicity but was recognized as a ‘musician’s conductor’. In the three decades since his early death his stock as an interpretative musician is possibly higher now than during his lifetime. He recorded extensively for a number of labels.

This recording was released in Britain in April 1956 when the reviewer in The Gramophone remarked that “Elisabeth Grümmer sings her solo with beautiful tone and deep feeling” and “Fischer-Dieskau gives a[n] expressive and musical account of his part”. Overall he felt the whole was “a worthy performance of the work and a well recorded one”.

Malcolm Walker

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