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Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, November 2007

“Requiem” is the name of the mass for the dead in the Roman liturgy. Brahms was a protestant and the word ‘deutsches’ (German) indicates that his composition is based on the Lutheran Bible, from which the composer selected passages from both the Old and New Testament as well as the Apocrypha. As opposed to the Latin Requiem his work is more a meditation and in that respect it has some similarities with Fauré’s Requiem.

Brahms’s mother died in 1865 and this may have been the direct reason for him to write a large-scale work in her memory. In December 1867 the first three movements were performed in Vienna but the first official performance was in Bremen in April 1868. This was still without the fifth movement, which was composed during the summer that year. The first complete performance was given in Leipzig in February 1869, conducted by Carl Reinecke.

The first Vienna production was given by The Choral Society of the Friends of Music and this is the choir that Herbert von Karajan engaged for this, the first commercial recording of the work. Vienna by then, in 1947, was still severely affected by the war: the political situation was unstable, the electricity could not always be trusted and the city was divided into four zones by the Allies. With Walter Legge as producer and Douglas Larter as engineer they managed to record the work successfully and considering that it was set down sixty years ago the quality of the sound is indeed impressive. A work of these dimensions ideally requires stereo recording to convey the full impact but listening with headphones, as I regularly do when reviewing, there is enough detail to be heard for full enjoyment of this sombre but warm work. Just two years after the war was over it is also remarkable that musical life had recovered to such an extent. The Vienna Philharmonic play beautifully and though there are occasionally individual voices that protrude from the collective of the choir it is still a homogeneous sound-picture. Most impressive is the singing in the fugal passages, notably in movements three and six, with pinpoint precision and no lack of power. But the beautifully serene fourth movement, Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, is also as reverential as it should be. It is worth noting that Karajan was associated with the choir from the year of this recording, 1947, until his death in 1989, directing them in over 250 performances.

This is primarily a work for choir and orchestra but the two soloists are also important and they lend a special individuality to the work in contrast to the collective of the choir. Hans Hotter’s dramatic declamation is almost on a Wagnerian scale and at this stage of his career his dark baritone was a superb instrument, powerful and beautiful. His timbre at the beginning of the third movement made me reach for the cover to check if this wasn’t after all Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Of course it wasn’t but there is certainly an uncanny likeness. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who six years later was to marry producer Walter Legge, was at this stage still a lyric soprano. She sings her solo, Ihr habt nur Traurigkeit, simply and with vulnerable tone.

Listening to Ein deutsches Requiem is always an act of contemplation and reverence, from the sombre opening via the dramatic climax of the double fugue of the sixth movement and back to the atmosphere of the opening. In a collection of great choral music there should be at least one recording in modern sound – and there is a wide choice. Some listeners think Sinopoli’s DG recording is erratic but I have always liked it, Solti on Decca with Kiri Te Kanawa a wonderful soprano soloist may be a safer bet, and Karajan recorded it on three further occasions, his 1964 version with Gundula Janowitz and Eberhard Wächter as soloists possibly the best. And then there is always Klemperer with Schwarzkopf again – and Fischer-Dieskau. The present version belongs in this select company and should be an attractive complement to one of the others – not only for historical freaks.

There are no texts but Malcolm Walker provides historical notes, from which I have drawn some of the information above, a ‘synopsis’ and biographies. At Naxos price this disc gives much music for the money.

Colin Clarke
MusicWeb International, September 2007

This remarkable performance, made in circumstances of unique hardship, surely already has a place in the hearts of all lovers of Brahms’ most radiant choral work. This was actually the first complete studio version of Ein deutsches Requiem - the studio in question being none other than the Grosser Saal of the Musikverein! The first issue was on Columbia LXs however I first got to know this performance from an EMI Références transfer; it is also currently available on the Classica d’Oro label. Mark Obert-Thorn’s work seems to have the edge in transparency: try the second movement, around the five minute mark, to hear just what the Karajan of 1947 could achieve texturally!

This is possibly the closest Karajan got to Furtwängler in terms of long-range thought and its realisation. His pacing of the second, and longest, movement, “Denn alles Fleisch ist wie die Gras” (“For all flesh is as grass”) is masterly. One really receives the impression of Brahmsian vastness. In addition, he captures the peace of “Wie lieblich ist deine Wohnungen” (“How lovely is thy dwelling place”) to heart-rending effect. Accents can count, too, though: listen to the penultimate movement, around four and a half minutes in. Indeed this movement, too, contains some of the great drama of the performance as the choir challenges Death. This version of the Requiem ends with its own redemptive force in the shape of a prayer-like “Selig sind die Toten” (“Blessed are the dead”). Listen out for the ray of sunshine oboe at around 3:20.

What a privilege it is to hear the great Hans Hotter - to my mind one of the great singers of all time - in top form. His entreaty, “Herr, lehre doch mich”, drips with emotion. The characteristic depth of timbre, the awareness of the text he sings and the innate musicality are all there, supplemented by a keen awareness of occasion. He adds real presence to the penultimate movement, too, wherein he sings with almost transcendental beauty.

I guess opinion on Schwarzkopf will be forever divided. Her voice is instantly recognisable, her diction impeccable. She sings with purity, and is generally steady in her number, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit”. I have to confess that if pressed to find a weakness in this performance, Frau Schwarzkopf would be it. But many will disagree, I am sure.

Of course, Karajan being Karajan, he recorded this work severally. He is joined by Tomowa-Sintow and van Dam - same choir, but BPO - on EMI; with Hendricks and van Dam - same choir, and orchestra - on DG; with Battle and van Dam on Sony DVD; and with Waechter and Janowitz: BPO, yellow label again. This 1947 recording remains however his supreme achievement in this marvellous score. There may be more clarity in the internal choral parts elsewhere, but nowhere is there the same spirit of hope and belief.

There are those, of course, who will prefer Klemperer’s more monumental approach - available as a GROC - but there is never at any point any doubting the greatness of Karajan’s achievement.

There is a balancing credit note in the form of Malcolm Walker’s exemplary notes. Obert-Thorn adds a small note of his own, citing British shellacs as the source.

This performance is forever recommended. That Naxos has provided a transfer at such price and quality zooms the recommendation in on this issue.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2007

The legendary record producer, Walter Legge, was largely responsible for resurrecting the career of Herbert von Karajan after the Second World War, his name implicated with the Nazi movement. The first ever studio recording of the Brahms Requiem seemed one of the ideal vehicles for such restatement, Legge already having engaged the Vienna Philharmonic for a number of sessions in 1947. It was one of those occasions where the spiritual elements of the work totally dominated, Karajan's broad tempi, that he was to use in so many subsequent recordings, here bringing a sense of bleak sadness. He had two soloists of outstanding quality, Hotter at the prime of his career, and a young soprano, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, who Legge was later to marry. At this time Hotter was much lighter in texture than the great Wagnerian we know on disc, and those who do not know this recording will be surprised at the slim silvery voice and fluttering vibrato of Schwarzkopf. The return of both orchestra and chorus to its full international status so soon after the devastating conflict was remarkable, though the soprano and tenor voices can sound a little stretched high in their register. Yet the interest was on the young conductor, and he proves to be an instinctive Brahmsian who knew just how much weight and gravitas the score could stand and then applied it. Of course we are still in the days of 78's, the recording technique lacking the ability to capture the full weight of the chorus in the drama of the second movement, but it was still a major achievement. This is not your only library copy of the Requiem, but is a landmark in the development of a remarkable conductor.

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