Following her stroke in January 1865, Brahms hurriedly traveled to see his mother but she died, aged 75, before he arrived. In April of that year he began work on the Requiem. Although Brahms never spoke of the matter, the death of his mother was the impetus for writing his single largest composition. It bears little resemblance to the Requiem Mass of Catholic liturgy. It is, rather, an offer of consolation to those who are bereaved. Brahms later said that the word "German" could easily be removed and the word "Human" replace it in the title. As in Heinrich Schutz's masterful 1636 'Burial Mass', Musikalische Exequien, Brahms takes German language texts drawn from the Bible, many of them familiar from Protestant funeral rites used in Germany (I can recall my own mother singing some of these melodies to comfort me as a child) and elsewhere in Europe. The design of the piece, however, is uniquely Brahms's own. It premiered in its original six movement form in Bremen in 1868. The Requiem was received with acclaim and its greatness immediately recognized. Brahms later added the seventh movement, the beautiful soprano aria "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit", the only movement to explicity discuss a mother's comfort and solace.
Herbert von Karajan has made several classic recordings of this piece. His 1947 Vienna recording with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, made in the shadow of recent destruction and ubiquitous death, is deeply emotional and a legendary interpretation. His 1964 recording with a 26 year old Gundula Janowitz, also made in Vienna for DGG, is a particulary rapt and quietly comforting reading: one whose sonics have always struck me as somewhat thin and under-recorded, however. Its hushed drama requires that you turn up the volume, always prepared to dash forward and turn them down again for the crescendos. This splendid DVD inhabits a middle zone. Recorded in March 1978 at the Grosses Festspielhaus in Salzburg for the 1978 Salzburg Easter Festival, this performance plumbs the depth of grief, seeking a solace greater than tears, a comfort offered by what is most unique in human communication: the ability to utter the inexpressible through music. Only through music can our emotions be laid bare with such simplicity. Only through music can the equation grief = beauty be validated with such force.
Karajan understands this fully: he mouths the words along with the great Wiener Singverein, his baton extolling their expressiveness whilst eliciting the matchless sublimity of quiet sorrow from their performance. The Berliner Philharmoniker play at a respectful distance throughout the piece. The two soloists: Gundula Janowitz, in her final recorded version with Karajan, and Jose Van Dam, are similarly splendid. There are difficult pages in the Requiem and both singers handle them with ease. The result is a magical performance that exemplifies our species' singular strength and greatest gift when confronting grief. As our loved ones slip the coils of this life, and as we search for balm to ease our loss and soften our grief, this music rests quietly in the shadows, awaiting use.
Sound in PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 is rich and full. The picture is remastered and clear. The disc is encoded 0 for worldwide use. The film lasts 79 minutes. The usual DGG menus and booklet are here. There are no extras.
A brilliant performance makes this DVD strongly recommended.