Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45
Elizabeth Watts (soprano) & Stéphane Degout (baritone)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 4 April 2009 in Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: May 2010
CD No: LPO – 0045
Duration: 76 minutes
In reviewing the concert from which this incontrovertibly distinctive “A German Requiem” has been sourced, Peter Reed was in no doubt of its merits. The Brahms was the main work in an evening that upped the ante for Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the LPO’s recently appointed principal guest conductor. Although not every critic warmed to his spacious conception, the audience was sufficiently impressed to stop coughing and sit in awed silence at the end. Participants were wowed too. The young conductor dispensed with a score for the date but his rehearsals were detailed, perceptive and genuine. This was no stunt. He plainly loves the work.
Shorn of concluding applause, that ecstatic audience response now has to be taken on trust and it isn’t all plain sailing. Barbara Bonney and Teddy Tahu Rhodes had dropped out to be replaced by Elizabeth Watts, whose vibrant timbre is still youthful enough to come over as radiant, and Stéphane Degout, who sounds elegant if not earth-shattering. The microphones pick out individual members of the London Philharmonic Choir in a way that would not have been apparent in the hall although the choral singing remains profoundly impressive. So too is the orchestral playing: the performance is one that almost magically compels attention from the very start with an ideally deep and mysterious yet transparent rendering of the opening bars.
To get to the point: I have no doubt that some listeners will be asking, like Richard Morrison in The Times, whether it is “the theological function of a requiem to go on so long that we’re all dead before it ends”. Those who have been brainwashed by the dubious claims of the ‘authentic’ lobby needn’t detain us here – they won’t be interested anyway. But what could prove more troubling for repeated listening is one’s impression that Nézet-Séguin’s sensitivity to individual incidents does not always contribute to the bigger picture in the manner of the older maestros.
I was astonished to discover the extent to which Klaus Tennstedt, Romantically moulding a previous generation of London Philharmonic forces in his EMI recording, is almost always slower still while sounding more motivated. Perhaps Nézet-Séguin’s embrace of stasis is just a sign that we have moved on. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that in his hands “A German Requiem” becomes a luminous iconic object rather than a dynamic structure, a universalised Requiem of sorrowful songs rather than the kind of music that takes us on a developmental journey. Carlo Maria Giulini’s latter-day interpretations were not notable for their dramatic thrust and it may be his brand of devotional music-making and intimacy of feeling which inspire Nézet-Séguin’s own approach. In truth the somnambulistic impression lifts somewhat as the work unfolds. There are some thunderous climaxes but a welcome avoidance of the merely theatrical.
The recording presents a Royal Festival Hall with a distancing halo that it does not possess and the sound overall can lack weight; too designed. What is at the very least an unfailingly beautiful rendering comes with full texts and translations, short biographies of the performers and a useful note from Andrew Mellor.