Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

WORKS: Ein deutsches Requiem
PERFORMER: Dorothea Röschmann (soprano), Thomas Quasthoff (baritone); Berlin Radio Choir & PO/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: 365 3932


Simon Rattle has proven a reliable interpreter of the great works of German Romanticism, and as one might expect from, for example, his Schoenberg Gurrelieder, this is a very impressive account of Brahms’s German Requiem, deeply considered and most beautifully played and sung. Rattle clearly has well-defined views on the piece, and his interpretation maximises the score’s consolatory aspects: this is all to the good, as Brahms’s intention was never to write a conventional Requiem – his focus is not on the dead but how the grief of the living can be reconciled with hope. As he wrote to Karl Rheinthaler, due to conduct the first performance in 1868 and worried by the absence of Christian doctrine, he could as well have called the work a ‘Human’ Requiem. Rattle very much approaches it in this spirit. The full, warm sound he draws from the Berlin Philharmonic has a sombre refulgence that becomes almost incandescent in the final movement’s vision of the blessed dead. Yet EMI’s recording of this live performance from last October also has an excellent sense of perspective and clarity, bringing out individual voices – both human and orchestral – in a way that many rival recordings fail to. So there is never any danger of the stodginess to which the work is prone in less understanding hands or with insufficient rehearsal. And this although Rattle’s tempos are traditionally broad, rather than the more athletic style favoured by ‘authentic’ versions – in a word, he’s more like Abbado than Norrington. The broadness doesn’t betoken anything lax or amorphous about the reading. On the contrary it is tightly focused, so that for instance the very deliberate pace chosen for ‘Alles fleisch is wie der Grass’ serves to enhance the drear solemnity of its remorseless funeral-march tread. Indeed, the underlying rhythmic aspect of each movement, the way that rhythm often seems to shape large-scale structure, is also an element that this performance makes very clear. The floaty waltz-rhythm of the fourth movement captures its celestial dance character to perfection. The vocal component is equally impressive, with beautiful choral singing. Thomas Quasthoff is an eloquent expounder of scripture in the baritone movements, Dorothea Röschmann ideally tender in ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’. Altogether this strikes me as the best new version of the Requiem I’ve heard in some years. While Abbado’s marvellously rich Vienna version with Cheryl Studer and Andreas Schmidt just remains my recommendation for this vein of traditional interpretation (with Rudolf Kempe’s mono Berlin account with Elisabeth Grümmer and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau an interpretative ideal, in its nobility and humanity), Rattle has produced what is by any standards a magnificent account of this uniquely grand and intimate work. With a recorded sound superior to Abbado’s, it can be unstintingly recommended. Calum MacDonald