Top Ear

A Brilliant Brahms Requiem from Haitink/VPO

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Jeremy Lee writes

Not many people know about this recording, and even fewer actually care about it because a) it has never been critically lauded, b) Philips has never given it much attention, and c) it has languished long out of print.  The other Brahms Requiem on Philips, performed by Gardiner and his period orchestra, has been reissued on Originals.  I’m on good grounds for encouraging Decca to exhume it on Eloquence or Virtuoso because the fact is that this is certainly one of the best Brahms Requiems yours truly has ever heard.

Of course, you won’t expect Bernard Haitink to be the main attraction here, and he doesn’t disappoint.  He isn’t.  His tempi are middle-of-the-road to fairly slow, and he doesn’t offer much special insight save for the tremendously exciting (and completely valid) crescendo timpani roll at the end of the third and sixth movements, and the tremendous gravitas he brings to the climaxes in the second.  In some way, however, his mostly self-effacing approach is a virtue, because his natural musicality, which is manifest in the balance and color in the singing and the playing, is just right in revealing the work’s truly Brahmsian splendor.

But Haitink himself isn’t enough.  In fact, if it weren’t the jaw-droppingly ravishing playing of the Vienna Philharmonic, and if Haitink did it with other orchestras instead, I probably wouldn’t bother to recommend this to you at all.   Of course there’s the rich Viennese sound, burnished horns and all, but for all that you might consider Gardiner’s and Karajan’s last recording instead.  No, the real virtue lies in the balance.  Where in Karajan’s recording the winds and brass are mostly buried by the strings and the chorus, here the brazen brass textures float out of the strings, creating a truly magical effect, yet at the same time manages to sound luxuriant and well-upholstered, unlike Gardiner’s sinewy sound.  Hear the ending of the first number to know what I mean.  The choir of the Vienna State Opera is also one of the best, with perfect intonation (not always a given!) and an alluring sound with lots of transparency that roundly beats their Singverein colleagues (as in Karajan’s recording).

Similarly, the soloists are excellent, and for most the main attraction would be Gundula Janowitz in her treacherous soprano solo; unfortunately, beautiful her tone may be (and her tone is always creamy and golden anyway), she doesn’t seem to have enough breath to sustain the long line despite Haitink’s not-particularly-slow tempo:  Celibidache’s nine and a half minutes doesn’t seem to ruffle Arleen Auger’s superb singing.  Tom Krause, on the other hand, is one of the best baritones ever to have tackled his part, with a solid and glowing tone.

On the whole, however, it’s the honesty of music-making here that wins me over, and this kind of musicianship speaks directly to the soul.  It’s meditative, but not so much as Celibidache or Tennstedt, and comparing them and Haitink’s is like comparing breathing thick, luxurious, fragrant air with inhaling air that is pure, crisp and sweet in a very discreet way.  It’s enchanting.  Add all these elements of great singing, orchestra and conductor up, and you have a recipe for a very lovely, very honest and very beautiful Brahms Requiem.

[Note:  The whole performance of the Requiem lasts about 79 minutes, which would be enough to fit on a disc, but for some reason in the original Philips issue it is coupled with Schicksalslied performed by the same forces save the soloists.  Just so you know that reissuing the Requiem on a single disc is more than feasible.]


  • Album name:  Brahms:  Ein Deutsches Requiem;  Schicksalslied
  • Performers:  Gundula Janowitz (soprano);  Tom Krause (baritone);  Bernard Haitink (conductor);  Vienna State Opera Chorus;  Vienna Philharmonic
  • Label:  Philips 411 436-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  1:32:50

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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