What's in a name? The titles of most classical works are merely generic ("Symphony # 1 in C Major"), descriptive ("Scheherazade") or appended by others and often sadly inappropriate (the "Moonlight" Sonata). Yet the title Johannes Brahms bestowed upon his Ein Deutches Requiem ("A German Requiem") conveys a world of genuine meaning.
Just what did Brahms mean by a "German" Requiem? The most palpable point of distinction is with the far more prevalent Catholic requiem Mass. Indeed, nearly all prior musical requiems (including the famous ones of Mozart, Cherubini and Berlioz), and most that would follow (Verdi, Dvorak, Faure, Britten) used the standardized Latin text of the Catholic mass for the dead. Brahms, though, based his work on his own selection of texts from the Lutheran Bible and, unlike in a requiem Mass, shifts the focus from the dead to the living. Indeed, while the Catholic requiem begins with a blessing for the dead, here death is not even mentioned until the penultimate movement, nor are the dead themselves addressed until the finale.
There was ample precedent for that approach, but none among major religious works of the time. Scholars note that in 1636 Heinrich Schütz had composed a Teutsche Begräbnis-Missa ("German Funeral Mass") which he had described as "a Concerto in the form of a German Burial Mass" and which had used the same opening text as the German Requiem, but Brahms may not have known it. Nor was Brahms likely to have known an obscure 1818 Deutsches Requiem that Franz Schubert had written for his brother. Perhaps the most direct model was Bach, who set each of his 295 Church cantatas as a series of recitatives, arias, choruses, chorales and sinfonias (instrumental interludes) to a selection of Biblical texts, poetry and hymns intended to reflect and expound upon a teaching or concept. Indeed, one of Bach's very first cantatas (his 1707 "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit," now numbered 106), is believed to have been written for a funeral and has been cited as a miniature model for the German Requiem, as it combines isolated lines from the Psalms, Isaiah, Luke, Acts, Ecclesiastices, Revelations and a 1533 Reissner hymn into a beautifully integrated 20-minute meditation comprised of an instrumental prelude, choruses suffused with soprano, alto, tenor and bass solos and a concluding chorale. (In contrast, Bach's secular 1727 "Funeral Ode" cantata, # 198, whose title suggests a more direct connection, is a diffuse treatment of a pompous ceremonial poem with far more musical than literary merit.)
Brahms' compilation of texts reflected his own religious tenets. As summarized by Michael Murgrove, the overall focus of the work is on comfort, hope, reassurance and reward for personal effort rather than the judgment, vengeance, sacrifice and overt references to Christian symbolism that characterize the Latin requiem mass. The result was a close-knit fabric reflecting the truths Brahms drew from Christian tradition. Even so, Alex Robertson notes that Brahms' return to the source writings carries historical weight, as it invokes the earliest Christian burial arts and practices, as preserved in the Roman catacombs, in which themes of rest, peace and sleep are combined with depictions of everyday life activities. Robertson further notes that there is no official Lutheran funeral service, nor even a prayer for the dead, thus reflecting Martin Luther's teachings that faith alone frees believers from sin and that, once saved, their entry into heaven is automatic.
Many commentators have noted with great admiration Brahms' deep knowledge of the Bible. Perhaps in an on-going effort to plumb its depths, Brahms reportedly covered his copy with annotations. Yet the German Requiem is nearly a secular work, and even avoids any mention whatsoever of Christ – a source of early critical scorn that led to the insertion of excerpts from Handel's Messiah and Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the premiere, perhaps to reassure ecclesiastical authorities of the composer's faith and to eliminate any suspicion of a challenge to Church doctrine. Indeed, the only oblique allusion to Christ is the opening line ("Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted"), a brief quotation from the Sermon on the Mount.
Murgrove suggests that Brahms viewed the Bible as more of a literary work than a theological statement – a repository of human experience and wisdom and the highest manifestation of thought and feeling. (Even so, Paul Minear reconciles the underlying message of Brahms' approach with fundamental Christian tradition, which integrates suffering (the Passion) with joy (the Resurrection) and stresses the need to temper our universal fear of death through faith in something greater than the mortal self.) That, in turn, points to the sheer modernism of the work, not only reflecting the emerging secular spirit of the time to probe traditional material for individual expression, but launching the egoistic attitude of personal viewpoints that would come to challenge and even override established faith (as in Benjamin Britten's 1961 War Requiem and Leonard Bernstein's 1971 Mass).
The text that Brahms fashioned is derived from the Old and New Testaments as well as the Apocrypha, with all but the fourth movement a blend of these sources. Robert Shaw considers the result "a most sensitive gleaning of the Christian scriptures of a profound, loving and most personal order – its own argument and its own organism" whose "spirit lies in the selection, not just the treatment, of the text." Steven Ledbetter agrees that although the text belongs to no formal liturgy of any church, it "nonetheless represents a deeply felt response to the central problem of human existence."
Brahms' selection of texts afforded a unique opportunity. Composers of Latin requiems could inject themselves only partially into the final product, as each section had to illustrate, if not advance, the dogmatic progression as well as the prescribed wording of each required section – a mournful Requiem aeternam, a fiery Dies irae, a somber Rex tremendae, a fearful Lacrymosa, a comforting Agnus Dei, etc. Brahms, though, with no liturgical purpose, was not bound to any particular content or order and could fashion the entire work according to musical logic. Thus, when it was suggested that Brahms add references to Christ as the central point of the Christian faith, he responded: "I have chosen one thing or another because I am a musician, because I needed it." Musgrave notes that the result enabled Brahms to achieve the same pattern of integrating variations of familiar musical forms that characterizes all of his mature long-form works.
One of the most fascinating consequences of the composer's free selection of his libretto is the variety of interpretations his text has stimulated. It was not immune from the 19th century temptation to find specific fanciful references in place of musical allusion; thus, biographer Richard Specht writes of the opening: "One has the impression of seeing a tranquil procession of white-clad women walking slowly past sacred pools toward a chapel … ." Others dwell more figuratively on the relationship of text and music, as when regarding the pedal point that accompanies the conclusion of the third movement as symbolizing the firmness of faith. Yet others plumb Brahms' compilation for even deeper meaning. Thus, Armin Zebrowski infers from the fourth movement's blessing of those who dwell in the house of the Lord a reciprocal meaning of God dwelling within us and thus giving rise to true peace, which, in turn, magnifies the significance of the tranquil musical setting.
To return to the title, a further connotation addresses the issue of language itself. The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians construes the title mainly as a mandate to perform the work in the German language (although, ironically, the German Requiem is heard in translation far more often than any other religious work of comparable stature). More likely is that by shunning Latin for the vernacular, Brahms intended the work to be more accessible to modern audiences. As Specht put it: "By its use of a German text in place of the Latin, it should speak far more impressively to every mourner than a setting of a dead language, the solemnity of which could affect but a few." Indeed, during rehearsals Brahms asserted a desire for even more openness: "I would happily omit the 'German' and simply say 'human.'"
But perhaps the most significant but overlooked word in the title is the first and least prominent: "Ein" ("A"). Perchance through his title Brahms is modestly telling us that he did not purport to have created "the" definitive German requiem nor any other sort of authoritative proclamation, but rather sought to offer just one among infinite approaches toward understanding and grappling with the ultimate mystery of life and accepting the inescapable tragedy of our mortality. Brahms humbly suggests that all we can do is accept our unavoidable fate while life goes on for the benefit of the living, who must make the most of their brief time and pass along their deeds, findings, thoughts, hopes and wisdom as others have done before them.
Unlike most large religious works, the German Requiem was not written in response to a commission or for a public event, and so efforts to trace its inspiration are somewhat diffuse. The notion of a large choral work was hardly foreign to Brahms, who had worked for years as a choral conductor and wrote works for chorus throughout his career. Even so, the earliest roots of the German Requiem extend back to Brahms' great mentor, the influential composer/critic Robert Schumann, who had published a glowing article hailing Brahms as a musical genius shortly after meeting him in 1853. Joseph Braunstein contends that Brahms was deeply affected by Schumann's suicide attempt the next year and wanted to express his emotions in a large-scale work but realized he was not yet prepared and abandoned the effort.
The primary stimulus appears to have come with Schumann's untimely death in 1856. While sorting through Schumann's estate, Brahms came upon a bare reference to a German Requiem and felt compelled to take up the task. Indeed, Schumann had urged Brahms to "direct his magic wand where the massed forces of chorus and orchestra may lend him their power." Klaus Blum found resemblances between the Brahms German Requiem and two requiems that Schumann had written. Hans Gal recalled that Brahms first heard Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at about the same time and was overwhelmed with its monumental ideas and treatment.
In the meantime, the second movement of what ultimately would become the German Requiem is believed to have originated that same momentous year when Brahms first rejected it as the slow movement of a piano concerto, then abandoned it as a slow scherzo for a planned symphony, and finally reworked it into a choral setting of "Den alles Fleisch" from the first Epistle of Peter. Three more movements may have been completed as a cantata by 1861, but then work appears to have lapsed until early 1865, when Brahms was jolted once more by the death of his beloved mother. For Brahms work on the German Requiem was cathartic; he told friends upon its completion: "Now I am consoled. … I feel like an eagle, soaring ever higher and higher." The last movement to be added – the fifth, in which a solo soprano sings of a mother's comfort – is generally attributed to the memory of Brahms' mother, but less as an immediate response to her death than a later tribute. Schumann's widow Clara proclaimed the finished work as the fulfillment of her husband's prophesy and after a planned Schumann commemoration fell through, Brahms wrote: "You ought to know how much a work like the [German] Requiem belongs to Schumann."
Siegfried Kross rejects these specific stimuli, deeming the work far too closely connected with Brahms' whole personality. Morton Ennis agrees, noting that Brahms had composed works associated with death and mourning throughout his life, and so there is no reason to associate the German Requiem with any specific death – neither Schumann's nor his mother's. Murgrave even questions the relationship of the fifth movement to Brahms' late mother, and suggests that it was simply too personal and intimate to have been given public exposure until after the success of the rest of the work had been assured.
The German Requiem bears the distinction of having had no less than three premiere performances. On December 1, 1867 the first three movements were given in Vienna. Beyond the expected mixed reaction from pro- and anti-Wagner partisans, for whom Brahms soon would become a symbol of conservative tradition, the performance ended in disaster, when the percussionist apparently mistook a dynamic indication in the score as ff and drowned out the concluding third movement fugue with a deafening pedal point. Eduard Hanslick, who ultimately would bestow upon the work the supreme praise of being a worthy successor to Bach's B Minor Mass and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, likened the ending to "rattling through a tunnel on an express train" and wrote: "After long expanses of delicately lyrical, poetic music, the piece seemed to end by clubbing the audience about the head." Perhaps to be heard above the timpanist's din, according to Specht the "singers were intent on shouting each other down wildly" and became "distorted into a deafening agglomeration of sound." Far more successful was the composer's April 10, 1868 Bremen performance of a six-movement version. The full work was first heard in Leipzig on February 18, 1869, completed by the lovely new fifth movement.
From the very outset, the German Requiem has found favor, both with choral societies (especially amateur ones), who appreciated its relatively undemanding technical requirements and stamina, and with audiences, who undoubtedly welcomed its warm messages of comfort and hope. Critics, though, were less enchanted, often tempering admiration of its universal message and its integration of old and new musical elements with concern over its deliberately attenuated range and overriding sobriety. Thus, George Bernard Shaw sniped that the German Requiem was fit for a funeral home and the 1873 Musical Times echoed that "the Philharmonic concert hall is not the place for a funeral service." Hanslick added that "a work so hard to understand and dwelling on nothing but ideas of death should not expect a popular success and should fail to please many elements of the great public." H. Kevil explains that 19th century ears, accustomed to attempts to express emotional reality, found Brahms' level approach a sign of sterile pedantry. Yet even in the 20th century, Specht castigated its fugues as "petrification of rough-hewn themes" and as "music for the eyes" that doesn't move the soul, even while conceding that "never before had the departed been sung to rest with a lullaby of such solemnity and consoling beauty." And in his 1997 biography, Jan Swofford degrades it as "too consistent in mood, without enough variety of texture, tempo and feeling to create the illusion of a satisfying story unfolding throughout."
The underlying problem may have reflected a dispute over Brahms generally; as Edwin Evans noted in 1912: "no one seems able either to like or to dislike him only a little. Either people insist upon regarding him as the legitimate successor to Beethoven or they deny him the position of a great master altogether." Modern commentators are able to view the work with greater perspective; writing in the 2001 Grove Dictionary, George Bozarth hails its diversity and historical awareness, ranging from the movement II opening of strict homophony to the elaborate neo-Handelian fugues that close III and VI, and even the IV opening that evokes a Viennese waltz. Reversing the harsh judgments of flat consistency in earlier Grove editions, he considers VI to "contain passages as expressively declamatory as anything in the 19th century." Perhaps the key observation was by Alec Robertson, who called it "a flawed work" for the very reason that "one is left asking questions that cannot be answered." But from the vantage of the complexity and cynicism of the seemingly insoluble problems of our current world-view, is that really a problem or more a hallmark of sophistication?
Brahms crafted the structure of his German Requiem to bolster the impact of the disparate textual sources he had assembled. His pupil Florence May noted that he had selected and arranged his text in order to present ascending ideas of sorrow consoled, doubt overcome, and, ultimately, death vanquished. Martin Emmis has noted its broad structural symmetry, in which the central movements IV and V convey the key theme of consolation; II, III and VI move from images of death and despair to triumph and hope; and I and VII close the circle by blessing both mourners and the departed with common text in the same key.
The opening movement begins with a warm, flowing instrumental figure derived from a Georg Neumark hymn that had been a favorite of Bach.
The second movement combines thoughts of mortality ("All flesh is as grass"), patience, the permanence of God and the joy of redemption. It opens with a solemn march in ¾ time (derived from the slow scherzo of the abandoned symphony), lightens with hope, proclaims the word of God in bold unison, and ends in varied radiant assertions of "ewige Freude" ("everlasting joy"). R. Kinloch Anderson cites the ghostly sound of the opening as proof of Brahms' sense of orchestral color and the patter of harp, flute and pizzicato violins as his sensitivity to specific words (in this instance accompanying mention of raindrops).
The third movement begins with a vulnerable solo baritone imploring God for knowledge of his fate, poises on a musical brink as he agitatedly asks "What is my hope?" and then plunges into a magnificent choral fugue assuring that "the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God." The fourth movement, an interlude reflecting the contentment of living with God, begins and ends simply and serenely, bracketing a double fugue that emerges to expand upon the thought of praising God. The fifth movement is that ravishing soprano solo intoning a mother's comfort.
With the sixth movement we reach the dramatic climax. A choral introduction of meandering harmonies searches for earthly stability ("We have no continuing city, but we seek one to come"), the baritone raises the prospect of resurrection ("Behold, I show you a mystery; we shall not sleep …"), the chorus excitedly proclaims victory ("Death, where is thy sting?"), and then launches into a massive C-major fugue in praise of God as the creator of all. The final movement at last delivers a long-deferred prayer for the dead from Revelations 14:13. By setting the final thought that "their works follow them" to the same music as the opening prayer for comfort (but with brighter orchestration), Brahms not only ties the conclusion back to the initial focus upon those who remain to mourn but envelops the entire work – and, by implication, all human endeavor, fear and hope – with the supreme consolation of a Divine embrace.
It is both curious and disturbing that such an accessible work had to wait until 1947 for its first studio recordings – clearly a sign of producers' low confidence in its commercial prospects. In the meantime, in addition to isolated movements, two exceptional concerts had been recorded, although not released at the time. Let's begin by exploring these, together with some others that follow the paths blazed by the pioneers. [All listings below are in the format of: conductor, orchestra, chorus, baritone soloist, soprano soloist (year, source, timing in minutes).]
Willem Mengelberg, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam Toonkunst Choir, Max Kloos, Jo Vincent (1940, Turnabout LP, 65')
This first recording of the German Requiem was a propitious match of artists and repertoire. From the outset, Mengelberg extends the logic of Brahms' musical architecture to a microcosmic scale, sculpting each phrase of the opening movement with constant swells of sound and adjustments of tempo to create mini-climaxes that animate the generally level terrain. Yet in the more segmented movements he manages to differentiate the individual sections, thus maintaining their integrity and distinctive character, even while integrating them through logical transitions. In keeping with the two soloists' respective functions, the baritone aptly quakes with excitement, while the soprano is serene. The pacing is a swift 65 minutes (and since this was a concert its speed cannot be attributed to pressure to fit segments onto 78 rpm sides), abetted by attentive articulation and ardent accentuation. Even though Mengelberg culminates with a slowly unfolding and majestic VI fugue and a ruminative finale, the overall impression is not one of mournful regret, but rather a contemplative celebration of life. The recording quality is decent and the only trace of the rapt audience is their light stirring between movements. Mengelberg's fusing of warmth and vitality produces an intensely human document that set a high standard for those that would follow.
Arturo Toscanini, NBC Symphony, Westminster Choir, Herbert Janssen, Vivian Della Chiesa (1943, Guild CD, Pristine download; 71')
The intense concentration and focus of this 1943 Toscanini concert, his only performance of the German Requiem that has been preserved, is the converse of Mengelberg's more intuitive interpretive approach. The result is a constant tension between leisurely, steady tempos that suggest a patient unfolding filled with lyrical affection and the tensile strength and crisp articulation that strain to leap forward with constant bursts of energy but never do. Perhaps by refusing to take a point of view, Toscanini suggests an inherent complexity to Brahms' conception, which contains both elements; while others vary their readings to convey both aspects in the appropriate sections, Toscanini's consistency leaves much to the imagination, making us work harder than we might wish to infer the emotional content. Indeed, he often seems to thwart our expectations – an ardently sung and highly operatic V is drained of its usual sense of comfort, and the clipped articulation leading up to the VI fugue falls flat when the fugue itself reverts to a rather reflexive vantage. Some may regard Toscanini's manner as a model of sophistication and integrity, mostly refusing to inject himself into the splendor of the music itself and enabling its structure to emerge in our minds, but it may strike others as too impersonal and abstract; I tend to prefer a more proactive approach that directly communicates a deeper range of human feeling.
With this Toscanini concert, we confront the vexing issue of translation. Mengelberg had no qualms about performing the German Requiem during World War II in its intended language (albeit in an occupied country), but perhaps to assuage anti-German feeling at the height of the War Toscanini's New York concert was in an English translation (although the following year he would lead a broadcast concert of Beethoven's Fidelio in the original German). On the one hand, performances in the local language would seem take the composer's desire for accessibility to its logical conclusion, enabling audiences to understand the words and better appreciate their musical settings. Yet, a translation that reflects the tight interdependence of Brahms' music and the sheer sound evoked by his original words seems elusive, if not utterly futile. Take, for example, the opening phrase, "Selig sind." The most common English renderings of "Blessed are" or "Blessed they" generate multiple problems at the very outset. Neither makes much grammatical sense nor fits the rising notes comfortably, both begin with a sudden "bl" sound rather than the soft "s" that gently launches the original, the sibilance falls on the only syllable lacking one in the original, and the extended third note of the music sounds more soothing with Brahms' sustained "in" than with an "ar" or "ey" vowel. So any gain in comprehension is offset by a loss of musical suitability. In a perverse stroke of fortune, earlier releases of the Toscanini recording were sufficiently blurry so as to preclude perception of the actual words, thus, ironically, relegating the piece largely to musical abstraction and, in so doing, restoring its artistic integrity. A recent Pristine restoration improves the fidelity to a remarkable degree, but, with equal irony, at the expense of reinstating the linguistic problems.
Wilhelm Furtwängler, Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, Bernhard Sönnerstedt, Kerstin Lindberg-Torlind (1948, Music & Arts CD, 79')
Nearly all the great Furtwängler concert recordings reflect his long leadership of the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras (and the corresponding familiarity and empathy of their musicians with his deeply personal and erratic style), and his results with foreign ensembles were mostly disappointing. Yet he achieved a magnificent German Requiem with these Stockholm forces, undoubtedly due to the special rapport developed during his wartime visits to the neutral Sweden, which had provided his only contact with music and emissaries of the free world. The very opening heralds an especially devoted reading, as each orchestral phrase is layered with cumulative power, and we feel the weight of each word as Furtwängler constantly fine-tunes his tempos and smoothly integrates a vast dynamic range from gentle whispers to hair-raising climaxes through exquisite transitions. At a slow and patient 79 minutes, time seems suspended in a rarified atmosphere of deep spirituality. The fidelity is only fair, but it far outstrips Furtwängler's other extant recording at the 1947 Lucerne Festival (with Hans Hotter and Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, also on Music & Arts). While marginally more dramatic (the powerful chord that concludes III is sustained for an astounding 18 seconds; in Stockholm it was "only" 12), the Lucerne recording resisted even the extraordinary restoration efforts of Maggi Payne and remains sonically challenging, afflicted not just with poor fidelity but severe wow, overload distortion and noise that often overwhelms the music and precludes genuine appreciation.
Hermann Abendroth, Radio Berlin Orchestra and Chorus, Heinz Friedrich, Lisbeth Schmidt-Glanzel (1952, Tahra CD, 76½')
Abendroth's concert is superficially similar to Furtwängler's but with enough crucial distinctions to highlight why Furtwängler's magic is unique and eludes others who might be tempted to emulate him. While Furtwängler's transitions are smooth and imply structural logic, Abendroth's tend to be quicker and sometimes sudden, thus tending to fragment the piece rather than integrating it. More generally, Abendroth tends to approach the work schematically, inflating tempos and dynamics to reflect the immediate degree of excitement or repose at any given moment. This becomes evident at the very outset, as Abendroth, like Furtwängler, begins in shadowy mists but then leaves subtlety behind by turning the subtle <> markings of the second set of "selig sinds" at measure 29 into major sonic swells. The timings, both overall and of individual movements, are somewhat deceptive, as his fast sections are very rapid, while the slow portions tend to be quite measured. Balances favor the chorus, which sings with precision and meticulous enunciation, thus tending to suggest an emphasis on mechanics over emotion and presenting more bones than flesh. I don't mean to be overly critical – leaving aside comparisons to Furtwängler, this is a fine, compelling performance in its own right that underlines the score's drama and rises to a stirring, triumphant VI that leaves any thought of morbidity far behind. Even so, while the tenor is fine, the soprano soloist is more grating than comforting, so you may want to invoke historical precedent and emulate the work's second premiere by skipping the fifth movement.
Daniel Barenboim, London Philharmonic, Edinburgh Festival Chorus, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Edith Mathis (1979, DG, 79')
For a taste of Furtwangler's magic in modern sound, Barenboim comes quite close, with nearly identical tempos, beautifully shaped phrases, thundering climaxes (with hugely imposing timpani – Furtwangler reportedly asked his timpanist if he was playing as loudly as he could and when assured that he was demanded that he play even louder), and deep spirituality – he invests the mourners' opening with a wondrous sense of longing by stretching each phrase and magnifies the explosive triumphant outbursts of the climaxes with deeply serious preparatory passages.
Sergiu Celibidache, Munich Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, Munich Bach Choir, Franz Gerihsen, Arleen Auger (1981, EMI, 88')
Speaking of slow performances … As summarized by Patrick Lang in his CD liner notes, Celibidache's Brahms was thoroughly serious, weighty and deep, with controlled, internalized passion and severe aristocratic stillness governing all its emotions. He adds that Celibidache was inspired by his Zen belief system and by the philosophy of Plotinus, for whom the highest aspiration was a state of profound passivity, in which inner perception transcends logic and rational knowledge. By far the slowest German Requiem on record, this concert both exemplifies and validates Celibidache's view. Never dull but rather purposeful and focused, it flows inexorably. All is there – even the climaxes are not slighted but rather controlled – and integrated through the sheer care and consistency of the performance, heard through the prism of Celibidache's distinctive outlook. While I personally prefer a more vivid reading, I still have to admire the purity of concept and the extreme to which Celibidache molds the work to his unique vision.
Finally, 1947 brought not one but two fine studio recordings of the German Requiem.
Herbert von Karajan: (1) Vienna Philharmonic, Vienna Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Hans Hotter, Elizabeth Schwartzkopf (1947, EMI; 75'); (2) Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Singverein, Eberhard Waechter, Gundula Janowitz (1964, DG, 76'); (3) Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Singverein, José Van Dam, Anna Tomowa-Sintow (1977, Angel LP, 76')
For this first European studio German Requiem, producer Walter Legge reportedly passed up the opportunity to preserve Furtwängler's glowing account and instead gambled on his young wartime rival. Many accounts of this recording tend to apologize for the need to overcome post-war deprivations (excuse me while I dry my tears), but what emerges is a fine combination of beauty and fervor that radiates sincerity. As André Tubeuf quipped, Vienna may have lacked everything at the time … except music. Indeed, the performers sound like they had something important to prove – to assert the intrinsic and abiding musicality of their culture. Legend has it that Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, who sings her comforting solo with ravishing nurture, selflessly sang along with the chorus sopranos to bolster their efforts. Karajan applies his trademark polish, but without lapsing into the slickness that would tend to dominate his later work. The piece unfolds patiently and beautifully, with due attention to detail – instead of the customary blur of growly bass, movement I begins with its joined quarter notes articulated just enough to add rhythmic support to the coalescing haze. The recording is somewhat crude and uncomfortably poised between clear vocals and hazy instrumentals. Karajan's first two stereo Berlin Philharmonic remakes (he made yet another with the Vienna Philharmonic (1985, DG), which I haven't heard – sorry, but even I have my limits) are quite similar, hovering between profundity and aloof abstraction. I prefer the earlier one, if only for the massively potent timpani that galvanize the II climaxes (and suggest control-room manipulation – drums just can't be that loud!).
Robert Shaw: (1) RCA Symphony Orchestra and Chorale, James Pease, Eleanor Steber (1947, RCA; 65'); (2) Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Richard Stilwell, Arleen Auger (1983, Telarc; 70')
From America came an equally fine set led by Toscanini's choral director. For his own recording, Shaw tempered the Maestro's fundamental objectivity with a welcome infusion of flexibility and warmth that avoided a feeling of impersonal mechanical rigidity. As might be expected, the choral singing is rich and natural, with confident pacing. The soloists are nicely restrained and the choral fugues unfold with clarity and detailed interplay of their vocal lines. Shaw's brisker pace itself provides sufficient vigor to obviate a need for overt dramatizing, although he accelerates the proclamation of victory swallowing death in VI to a white heat, which further underlines its climactic role in the overall structure, and leads logically into a steadfast rendition of the following fugue praising God the Creator, as if to emphasize the inevitability of that thought. A 1983 remake with Shaw's Atlanta forces, which by then he had led for 15 years, boasts a superlative early digital recording and a somewhat broader overall pace that trades the sweep and momentum of the earlier reading for a sense of well-being.
Craig Jessop, Utah Symphony, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Nathan Gunn, Janice Chadler (1999, Telarc; 69')
This really is Shaw's third and final recording – having prepared it, he died shortly before the actual sessions, which then were realized by his colleague. In notes for the release, Shaw wrote that he had been torn for 50 years between viewing the German Requiem as a dramatic/narrative work "that might best connect with American performers and audiences in their own language" and a work that was primarily lyric, poetic or contemplative and that would be more revealing in the original. Although his earlier recordings had been in German, Shaw often advocated translations and opted for one here, but in deference to Brahms' own use of the Lutheran Bible he felt that "a version in English would need roots in language as deep as those in music, and as exalted in beauty," and thus turned to "our noblest linguistic heritage" – the King James Bible, to whose words he adhered as closely as possible, although some syllables are stretched or repeated to fit the music. The performance itself faithfully follows Shaw's own interpretations.
After a long hiatus, the sporadic recording history of the German Requiem resumed in curious fashion in 1955, when two mono LP sets were recorded at the same location by the same orchestra and chorus but released on competing European labels.
Fritz Lehmann, Berlin Philharmonic, St. Hedwig Cathedral Choir, Berlin Motet Choir, Otto Wiener, Maria Stader (1955, DG, 80')
Rudolf Kempe, Berlin Philharmonic, St. Hedwig Cathedral Choir, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Grümmer (1955, EMI, 76')
As evidenced by the timings noted so far, the traditional "German" pacing for the German Requiem tends to be measured, and so here. But while using the same forces, Lehmann and Kempe exemplify two interpretive extremes within that tradition. Among relatively straightforward recordings, Kempe's timing of 76 minutes pushes the limit without losing the work's intrinsic sense of hopefulness, mainly (as did Abendroth) through injecting acceleration and emphasis into the climactic sections that are nestled amid extreme reflection. Beautifully balanced and richly recorded, he injects just enough animation to communicate a fully-integrated view of the piece and Fischer-Dieskau's expressive fluidity is wondrous. Perhaps it was Lehmann's reputation as an early proponent of period performance practice that led him to a light texture and a nearly complete absence of inflection (and in these ways his record serves as a forebear of more recent historically-informed performances). But when sprawled over 80 minutes and without the special touches of a Furtwängler, Abendroth or Bernstein it tends to just drag more than fascinate. Even so, by distending the first and last movements to an even greater extent than the others, Lehmann suggests a complete mantle of peace descending on both mourners and deceased, albeit without the underlying sense of living that is an central component of Brahms' conception. As a result, Lehmann leaves an overall impression of implacable sadness, only occasionally relieved by especially prominent brass within the shallow sonics.
Bruno Walter, New York Philharmonic, Westminster Choir, George London, Irmgard Seefried (1956, Odyssey LP, Sony CD, 63')
And as is equally apparent from the timings, the "American" tradition, if indeed there was one, favored far quicker tempos and a feeling of overall vitality. One of the last vestiges of the vigor that distinguished Walter's long career until the very end (which regrettably is the only portion most classical fans know nowadays from his final Columbia stereo remakes), this magnificent reading is beautifully paced, never rushed but always pressing forward with energy and a strong rhythmic thrust, including overpowering timpani in II, an extraordinary rarity in the entire Walter discography. Even the pastoral IV surges with a radiant spirit and strongly assertive choral singing. Like Shaw, Walter saves his most potent firepower for VI so as to emphasize its thematic importance in the overall structure, but unlike Shaw's dissipation of that energy he plunges into an equally energetic fugue. George London adds a fine but subtle human touch – as a bass, he has to strain at the very top of his range and thus magnifies the struggle expressed in the text written for a baritone. Remarkably, perhaps overrun by the stereo revolution, this splendid monaural recording was never released at the time and was issued only in 1972 on the budget Odyssey LP label.
Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Schwartzkopf (1961, EMI, 69')
This is the most widely-acclaimed stereo recording of the German Requiem, and rightly so. Wonderfully played, sung and recorded, everything fits together superbly. All the score's details are heard clearly in an ideal balance without highlighting – even the superstar soloists are placed back in the proper perspective, so that Fischer-Dieskau's effortless conviction and Schwartzkopf's sweet modesty are embedded within, rather than dominating, their sections. With steady tempos and intense moderation, it's hard to characterize this reading, but that's intended as a high compliment. While others have invested the work with greater serenity, drama or spirituality, Klemperer leads with granitic force while avoiding the grimness that afflicts some of his late work, and his supreme poise triumphantly treads the thin line between objectivity and disengagement. For me, his mature confidence not only imbues the text with an appropriate nobility and assurance but compels appreciation for Brahms' achievement, inviting us to infer what we will from this fine, attentive presentation of the composer's materials. My only quibbles are a slightly stodgy pacing of the VI fugue and a bad splice before its final "Where is thy sting." Without belittling others' valid proactive and personalized approaches, this is a performance for the ages that can be heard repeatedly and cherished by future generations.
Some Others – While the stereo era has produced many rewarding and enjoyable recordings of the German Requiem, most strike me as of somewhat lesser interest than the ones above. These include:
John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, Monteverdi Choir, Rodney Gilfrey, Charlotte Margiono (1990, Philips CD, 66')
Roger Norrington, The London Classical Players, Schütz Choir of London, Olaf Bär, Lynne Dawson (1992, EMI CD, 63')
These two historically-informed recordings bring us squarely to the question of the performance characteristics that Brahms would have wanted to hear. Yet the two realizations, while both exceptional, are far from identical – the Norrington is notably leaner, crisper and faster – and with good reason – our only indications are indirect and thus somewhat speculative. Take the fundamental issue of timing – Brahms provided metronome indications for the Bremen premiere, but he later had them removed, and in any event they are far faster than any conductor is willing to accept – thus, for the 158-bar common-time first movement he specified 80 quarter notes to the minute, which would yield a performance of just under 8 minutes; Gardiner takes 9:50 and Norrington 8:48, while among traditional conductors the fastest are Walter's 8:52 and Shaw/RCA's 9:15; the average hovers between 10 and 11. With respect to dynamics, Brahms appeared to favor a wide range, asking that the first vocal entry be as soft as possible, although the score is merely marked p. As for his preferred size of the performing forces, Brahms worked with a wide scale, ranging from lean provincial ensembles to festival choruses many hundred strong, although he ordered 200 vocal parts and 12 of each string part for the Bremen premiere, thus suggesting a far smaller orchestra than choir (Norrington uses 64 of each). Even the instrumentation can be somewhat variable; although the score is marked for a contrabassoon anchor, Brahms reportedly preferred an organ.
In the notes to his recording, Gardiner asserts that he attempted to eschew a standard smooth approach in favor of the Baroque devices that Brahms, more than any other composer of his time, studied, cherished and assimilated, including dissonance, cross-rhythms and syncopation, and in particular Schütz's speech- and dance-derived rhythms. In order to clarify Brahms' contrapuntal textures, Gardiner's orchestra uses Viennese instruments – mellow-sounding horns, shorter oboes and brighter kettledrums played with hard sticks – as well as such techniques of the time as expressive string bowing with sparing vibrato. In notes to his companion set of the Brahms symphonies, Norrington summarizes his approach as using forthright, spacious tempos subject to sensitive but simple variation, clear textures, wind-favored balances, and phrasing with warmth, sparkle and passion. He goes on to emphasize that since Brahms did not write for specific occasions, there is no one "authentic" way to play his music, and that the use of original instruments compels nothing old-fashioned, but rather enables rethinking and creation afresh.
Although each of these recordings is filled with felicitous details, to me the distinctions from their peers are far more subtle than the gulf that separates period and modern renditions of Baroque, classical and even early Romantic works. On balance I suppose I would opt for Norrington's as the more outspoken. He also prefaces the German Requiem with a fine bonus – Brahms' early Begräbnisgesang ("Burial Song"), a sensitive but rather routine setting for choir, brass and winds of a Lutheran hymn that speaks of eternal life, even while ending with a somber reminder of death's inevitability. Regardless of their means and intentions, the Gardiner and Norrington readings bridge past and present and are compelling evidence, if any indeed is needed, that Brahms' German Requiem speaks with as much force to new generations as to his own.
The quotations and other factual information for this article are primarily derived from the following sources:
Copyright 2012 by Peter Gutmann
For a note about the illustrations, please click here.
copyright © 1998-2012 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.