I have been listening to Brahms's German Requiem to commemorate the death of a parent of a dear friend. This beloved work received its first performances in 1868 and 1869. Its immediate inspiration was the death of Brahms's mother and, probably, the death of Robert Schumann as well. Although many view Brahms as a conservative composer, the spiritual message of this work is distinctly modern. In writing his Requiem, Brahms eschewed traditional religous doctrines, creeds, and texts. Instead, he chose passages from the Bible (Old and New Testaments and Apocrypha) that emphasized a sense of the mystery of life, the fragility of life and inevitability of death, the hope for the future, and the value of patience and endurance. The German Requiem gives a sense of spirituality in a secular age. Brahms himself saw his work as a "human" rather than as merely a German requiem. Malcolm Macdonald, in his 1990 book, "Brahms", has aptly captured much of the spirit of this music when he describes it as showing "human love as the equivalent of God's love of the cosmos" (p. 22). Human love encompasses the love of a parent, friend, child, sweetheart, and much else.
I can't think of a more fitting interpreter of the German Requiem than Otto Klemperer or of a better recording to bring this music to life than this historic, 1961 recording with the Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra, with soloists Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwartzkopf. The recording is available at modest price on the EMI Classics series of "Great Recordings of the Century." It is that, indeed.
Otto Klemperer (1885-1973) was himself a religious seeker passing through at various times of his life periods of skepticism, Judaism, Christianity, and then near the end of his life a return to Judaism. He was at his best in the performance of serious, monumental music and in the works of Beethoven and Brahms. (His performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis is also masaterful and available on this series.) This recording captures the solemnity and gravity of Brahms's great Requiem and also its lyricism -- its ultimate message of comfort and hope. The sound is outstanding. The chorus can be heard clearly and understood, and the instrumentation of the work comes through. The soloists, Fisher-Dieskau and Schwartzkopf perform their important parts in the third, sixth, and fifth sections beautifully. Klemperer's tempos are slow and magesterial.
The Requiem combines Brahms's study of the music of the past, primarily Bach and Mozart, with his need to compose in his own voice. Put otherwise, Brahms tried to reformulate the religious sensibilities of the past for the modern temper. Large massive fugual sections conclude the second, third and sixth sections of the requiem and counterpoint looms large in much of the rest of the work. But the prevailing tone is one of peace and comfort.
The first movement of the work is a consolation to mourners set in the lower registers of chorus and orchestra. The second movement is a lengthy and solemn sarabande which celebrates the transience of human life and the hope of an enduring life hereafter. This movement includes grand music for brass and tympani as well as for the chorus and the monumental fugue. Fischer-Dieskau delivers an eloquent prayer for wisdom and understanding in the third movement which, again, is capped by a great fugue. The fouth movement, the climax of the work, is short and songlike and captures the etherial spirit of heaven. The fifth movement belongs to Ms Schwartzkopf as she delivers Brahms's message of hope and consolation to mourners. The sixth movement is an impassioned dialogue on the mystery of life between the chorus and Fischer-Dieskau culminating in a grand fugue of glory to God. The finale returns to the movement of the opening, in a higher register, and closes the work on notes of hope and serenity.
The German Requiem is one of the treasures of music. Klemperer's version is an inspiration and will move both new listerners and those familiar with Brahms's great score.