Top Ear

Alsop’s Adequate Brahms Requiem

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Jeremy Lee writes

Not too long ago, Marin Alsop concluded her Brahms symphony cycle for Naxos with the London Philharmonic, a cycle that was generally well-received critically.  Supplementing that cycle is this new Brahms Requiem with a lower profile orchestra, the MDR Leipzing Radio Symphony Orchestra.  Unfortunately this time around, Alsop misses the mark by a considerable margin.

Quite evidently, Alsop’s approach to her Brahms Requiem has been affected considerably by historically-informed performance, as can be heard from the swift tempi (to my knowledge the fastest recording ever made of this piece), small-sounding forces and sinewy textures, a striking departure from the more orthodox, modern conception of her symphony cycle.  The result?  The orchestra sounds rather small, the chorus too–and that’s about it.  The problem is that Alsop gives us a period canvas without the period colours:  the rhythms are smoothed over, the textures aren’t clearer than most modern-instrument recordings, the winds, brass and timpani aren’t prominent like they should be in a historically-informed performance.  Gardiner calls this “dinginess of texture and mood” that affects many modern-instrument recordings, including the one under review here, “totally at variance with Brahms’ aim and distinctive style”, which in Alsop’s case defeats the purpose of a period conception anyway.  As a result of this, her choice of historically-informed tempi often sounds unnecessarily rushed.  Take the first movement for an example, in which Alsop brings it home in under 9 minutes, and compare and contrast it with Gardiner’s period recording, in which a slightly slower tempo is allowed for so much more color and contrast, as well as an overlaying aura of bliss without compromising flow and structure.

With the period thing out of the way, let us turn our attention to the playing and the choral singing, both of which are fine, just not terribly special or inspired in any way.  I have no reservations for Anna Lucia Richter’s heartfelt solo in Ihr habt, and a huge pile of reservations for Stephen Genz’s singing in Herr, lehre doch mich:  his annoyingly wobbly vibrato, slightly hollow tone and mannered, clipped phrasing makes him one of the less alluring baritones to have sung this part (in any case, he sounds much worse than his performance of this piece with Jaap van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic).

What this is, then, is yet another proficient Brahms Requiem that just isn’t distinguished enough to warrant a second listen, one that is not exceptionally well played, well planned out or even involving.  That makes it all the more unfortunate because the price certainly is attractive, and because I think what the world needs now is a great new budget Brahms Requiem.  So if you want a period performance, go to Gardiner/Philips;  if you want a regular one, Blomstedt/Decca, and, if your money is tight, Karajan/EMI, all of which are more convincing performances than Alsop’s.

Details

  • Album name:  Brahms:  Ein Deutsches Requiem
  • Performers:  Anna Lucia Richter (soprano);  Stephan Genz (baritone);  Marin Alsop (conductor);  MDR Leipzig Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra
  • Label:  Naxos 8.572996
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  64:12
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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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