Brahms Requiem: Performances II and III

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 3.39.16 PMIt turns out that the Berlin Philharmonic Archive has two other performances of this work:

II: Made in Vienna in 1997, with the Swedish Radio Choir, conductor Claudio Abbado, soprano Barbara Bonney, bass Bryn Terfel (now famous at the Met). In this performance, as might be expected, the conductor wears plain vanilla white tie like the musicians, has no spotlighted pompadour, and the camera spends less time on him and more on the orchestra than in the 1978 Salzburg Karajan version. The soloists however are better than Karajan’s. Terfel is of course top-rank, and Bonney is not only better-looking than Janowitz, she doesn’t say Traurishkeit for Traurigkeit, a peccadillo it is surprising the conductor didn’t correct. But overall I thought the Karajan rendition was the better one — Abbado’s was rather humdrum.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 3.39.25 PMIII: The third performance of the Brahms Requiem in the BP Archive was made in 2009 with the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, conductor Donald Runnicles, soloists Helena Juntunen and Gerald Finley. I judged it better than the II above and almost as good as the I with Karajan. Runnicles, a Scot, is a lefty — not many of those, I only remember one but have forgotten his name — and he has his excitable moments (left). Soprano was fine (no Traurishkeit), bass nice but not up to Terfel. In this performance, as in Requiem II, all the choristers had scores, and even the soloists, and the conductor had a very visible score; I suspect Karajan had one too, but it was well-camouflaged.

The Grand Logothete, more properly the Panhypersebastos, of the VDP has vented his Olympian displeasure at the paucity, or maybe even the absence, of choral music reviews in these annals, and directed a cure thereof. Accordingly, tune in next week for a review of the Beethoven Missa Solemnis.

Thomas Lemann


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Berlin Philharmonic concert: Brahms Requiem.  Conductor: Herbert von Karajan; soloists Gundula Janowitz, soprano; José van Dam, bass. Recorded at a live performance in Salzburg, 1978.

Despite Karajan’s well-known flamboyance, the performance was musically sober, precise, beautifully done by orchestra, soloists, and chorus from Vienna.  No unorthodox tempi, no departure from standard dynamics, as fine a performance as I’ve ever heard. (I’ve sung the piece in the chorus in New Orleans, and also in Boston in college under Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony.)

Theatrically, as you might expect, there were unusual touches. While the orchestra were in the customary white tie, the irrepressible conductor alone wore a white turtle-neck, and the camera was most often on him, with his silver-white pompadour spotlighted, but his gestures (without baton) were relatively restrained.  The soloists and the chorus sang without scores — unusual in my experience; after extensive rehearsals, you do get to know the score pretty well by heart, but I never saw or participated in a performance where the chorus had no scores, and their lineup was, I thought, unnecessarily theatrical.

This concert was just added to the Berlin Philharmonic Archive. To get it, go to the Berliner Philharmoniker website, fork over your € 10, and hit Play.  Highly recommended.

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