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9.2.19

Briefly Noted: Brahms as Early Music

available at Amazon
J. Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, C. Sampson, A. Morsch, Cappella Amsterdam, Orchestra of the 18th Century, D. Reuss

(released on January 4, 2019)
Glossa GCD921126 | 70'26"
The German Requiem is perhaps the greatest work in the oeuvre of Johannes Brahms, or at least my favorite. Completed in its final form in the wake of his mother's death, the piece reveals the normally reticent Brahms at his least guarded. In recent years, various conductors of historically informed performance ensembles have tried to get to the bottom of what the composer may have had in mind with the piece, by going back to the instruments of the period and following the metronome markings Brahms later attached to each movement. None of these versions has quite satisfied: John Eliot Gardiner, twice, with the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique (1991, 2012); Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Vienna Philharmonic and Arnold Schoenberg Choir; or Philippe Herreweghe with La Chapelle Royale and Collegium Vocale.

Cappella Amsterdam and Daniel Reuss, a group growing in my admiration recently, have succeeded. The sound with the Orchestra of the 18th Century in this live recording is golden and balanced, with Reuss not slavishly following the metronome markings but taking the main lesson they seem to offer, that the slow movements not be too glacial and the fast not too frenetic. As stated in the liner notes, the markings as a whole indicate that this is music for meditation on its Biblical words, rather than for dramatic titillation. This seems like just the right approach for a composer who always plays his cards close to this chest, and the results agree. The incomparable Carolyn Sampson provides maternal consolation in the fifth movement, and German baritone André Morsch is both subtle and prophetic in the other solos.

The weight of the piece rests on the chorus, however, and the Cappella Amsterdam delivers the full range of dynamics with pure and balanced sound, nicely matched to the smaller punch of the orchestra. One moment in the first movement knocked me over the first time I listened to this disc. At Rehearsal E, Brahms suddenly leaves the alto section of the chorus alone at the return of the opening theme. Most conductors bring that line out by having the altos sing louder than Brahms indicate (piano). Reuss leaves his women's sound quiet, exposed almost like a single voice, a magical effect of emotional vulnerability.

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