Though ostensibly an ardent Romantic, Brahms had a great interest in the music of the past, especially that of 17th century composer Heinrich Schütz. Though not always immediately obvious, a surprising amount of Brahms' own music is influenced by Schütz's style and techniques. His German Requiem of 1869 consciously sets texts which had previously been used by his forebear over 200 years earlier – so the chance to compare these works on the same album is very welcome.
The warmth and clarity of John Eliot Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir makes it a compelling exponent of the two Schütz works presented here, in live 2007 performances from London and Paris. A year later in Edinburgh, the Brahms begins beautifully with an even richer choral sound, effectively contrasted with the relatively abrasive, vibrato-less gut strings of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique – providing a piquancy absent from many urbanely smooth modern instrument versions. The second movement, Denn alles Fleisch, can often get bogged down with overbearing morbidity. Not so here, thanks to Gardiner's agile, slow-waltz tempo and choral dexterity. The initial, well-enunciated, chorus entry has an arresting intensity, although the curiously tame climax of Gardiner's crescendo does not match the earth-shattering force of many performances. The brisk, forthright march of the concluding fugue makes up for a lack of gravitas with sheer exhilaration, but the third-movement fugue is more successful – free-flowing and well-grounded, it builds powerfully.
Gardiner adopts a relatively steady tempo for the sublime Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, creating an ethereal ebb and flow with romantic rubato and portamento. The choir is a shade too English-sounding here, at odds with the relaxed radiance the movement requires, but it is an improvement on his 1991 Philips studio recording. The tempestuous episodes in the sixth movement are thrillingly dramatic, and the work's luminous close brings a genuine sense of repose.
The Achilles heel of many Gardiner recordings is his choice of young ‘up-and-coming’ vocal soloists. In this case, sadly neither the soprano nor baritone are up to the job, letting down what is otherwise a highly rewarding account of the German Requiem realised in a carefully considered, mature and generally persuasive attempt at late 19th century performance practice.
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SDG 706; SOLI DEO GLORIA; Classica vocale Sacra Messe