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Johannes Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45

Anna Lucia Richter (soprano), Stephan Genz (baritone), MDR Leipzig Radio Choir, MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop (conductor)
Recorded at the Gewandhaus, Leipzig, Germany (April 11-14, 2013) – 64’13
Naxos 8.572996 – Compact Disc with booklet, essays and translations in English and German

After a long, fruitful survey of Brahms’ four symphonies, conductor Marin Alsop returns to the composer’s earlier Ein Deutsches Requiem. That this recording is disappointing is as much a result of its shortcomings as well as the superb discography this work has accumulated. Brahms’ non-liturgical, personal work has been served well across the gamut of interpretations, from the likes of Otto Klemperer to Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Most lacking on this recording though is the exquisite technical ability of the forces that the former conductors had at their disposal. While there are flashes of beauty, the MDR Leipzig groups mostly come across as bland and untidy.

Alsop establishes a lithe character to her reading right from the outset with a brisk tempo. It is a characterization that I find much sympathy with, but is often confounded by fussy transitions and wayward pulses. As the upper strings enter in the first movement, it seems the tempo is malleable and ensemble is not completely in sync. As reinforced throughout much of the recording, phrase endings are often haphazard, giving the feeling of beats being shortchanged.

Technically, the players are proficient though unremarkable. There are even occasions of unfortunate intonation in the woodwinds (as in the middle of the third movement). Strings are played straight by design but the result is unsettling. The musicality is there, but it is an odd marriage of sound that while not overtly unpleasant to listen to, is cool and inexpressive.

The choral forces are in much the same boat. The soprano and tenor sound is quite colorless, particularly from the latter. The tenors are somewhat haughty in sonority. All parts tend to straight-tone their phrases to extremes. They do sing dynamically with the sopranos, in particular, achieving some impressive suspensions of sound, but it is not a warm choral sound. Phrases are often swooped with appropriate dramatic emphasis and while the intent is appreciated, the result is cold and somewhat mechanical.

Soloists Anna Lucia Richter and Stephan Genz perform in the same mold, though the latter with a distracting shaky vibrato and wooly sound. His first entrance seems unsteady with a constricted high note. Dramatically though, his intentions are appreciated. Richter’s soprano sound is slim, yet steely. Her voice is youthful and while she doesn’t necessarily have trouble with the high tessitura, the voice lacks freedom above the staff and is less comforting than desired.

The forces in this reading are coherent in vision. It seems Alsop wants to give a certain liquidity to the piece, emphasizing its early music roots in quality of sound. The result is unsuccessful though. The orchestra and chorus lack the technical proficiency to give such methods the required emotional impact. While the dirge in the second movement is powerfully sung, it is unpersuasive. The fugues of the third and sixth movement have transparency but lack in majesty. The most successful movement is the famous fourth, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen.” The chorus soars here with effortless phrasing and a transcendent sound.

The recorded sound does no one any favors. The sound is shallow and lifeless. Choral balance is suspect. There is virtually no depth to the soundstage and the upper extremes tend to sound shrill. There is some clarity to the sections of the orchestra, but on the whole the sound is undistinguished.

In a field as crowded as this piece enjoys, an interpretation and performance must be quite special to deserve a second listening. While there are some nice moments here (despite my critical gripes), all aspects have been well surpassed in many other instances and this recording can only be recommended to the most curious.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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