Brahms
Ein Deutsches Requiem
Harolyn Blackwell (soprano)
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn
CD No: LSO LIVE – LSO 0005 CD
Duration:
Reviewed: December 2001
Ashamed though I feel to admit it, up until hearing this recording and studying the work anew with the score I had a blind spot as far as A German Requiem is concerned. I found it too long and, at the risk of having myself shot at dawn, dreary beyond belief. Now – thanks in no small part to this wonderful performance – I find myself re-examining the piece. Although I still maintain that the work has its longeurs, I find that I was basically wrong!
Brahms’s Requiem has become something of a Previn speciality – he has a wonderful overview of the work, his reading is autumnal, reflective but hugely uplifting and has an inner power that seems ideal for Brahms’s setting.
The first movement is dark – no violins, but divided violas and cellos – Previn responding to every dynamic nuance and creating a marvellously hushed atmosphere for the entry of the chorus with "Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted". The LS Chorus here is quite superb, a standard that it keeps up throughout; diction is quite beyond criticism and could serve as a useful lesson to a good many solo singers I have heard recently. The confidence of the LSC, its command of Brahms’s sometimes long and cruel phrases, its ability to sing the quietest pianissimos and still project, and the loudest fortes without bellowing, is hugely impressive. I assume that the chorus master for Previn’s interpretation was Stephen Westrop, though there is no mention of his name anywhere, which is a disgrace! Previn conjures up the varying moods of the second movement wonderfully – the threatening funereal-tread of the opening "For all flesh is grass..." contrasted with the lighter-shaded "Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth...". That together with the joyful outburst, "But the word of the Lord endureth for ever…" makes for a hugely impressive movement.
The solo contributions are short but telling – David Wilson-Johnson has the perfect combination of gravity and pathos at the opening of the third movement, "Lord, make me know mine end...” whilst Harolyn Blackwell’s soprano solo, "And ye now therefore have sorrow...” in the fifth movement is beautifully controlled, floating magically alongside some expressive woodwind playing. I could go on ... but I must mention the astonishing passage in the sixth movement – “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" – suspensions that in this realisation quite literally make one’s hair stand on end. The breathtaking invention towards the end of the third movement, at the words "But the souls of the righteous...” over what seems an endless pedal-note, shows Brahms’s debt to Bach and Schutz, and also displays his own contrapuntal mastery by weaving orchestra and chorus parts of astounding complexity – every line from Previn is audible, clear, rhythmic and expressive.
In short, this would be a remarkable ’normal’ recording; that it is taken from a live performance – 18 June 2000, Barbican Hall – is nothing short of miraculous. With my new-found enthusiasm for Brahms’s Requiem I will revisit this recording again and again; as I write this review I want to return to the CD immediately – and that doesn’t happen very often. For a fiver this is such a bargain – everybody should have one!

 

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