Jeremy Lee writes
Every now and then, I run into a writer’s block, which renders me completely unable to draw on new inspiration and write a good review. This has been happening for a bit more than two weeks now, and now that all my spare articles (written in a blaze of inspiration just in case such a writer’s block occurs) have run dry, I was faced with a pressing need to produce a new article (Top Ear endeavors to publish a new article weekly, though more often than not it fails to do so) for this week. Well, thanks to a stumble upon Gergiev’s new Brahms Requiem on Spotify, I was filled with monumental inspiration to produce this article you are reading here.
Is that a good thing? Yes, in that it cured my writer’s block, but a resounding “NO!” in that it is simply one of the very worst Brahms Requiems I have ever heard. There’s no need to spill much ink on lambasting this performance’s utterly appalling qualities. The orchestra delivers beautiful playing in the more meditative sections, as it well should be, but whenever dramatic moments come orchestral balance and precision is thrown out of the window. The sheer amount of staggered entrances and imprecise ensemble is astonishing, and an extremely prominent trumpet flub in the sixth movement should have been edited. Baritone Christopher Maltman’s voice is basically fine but sometimes insecure, while Sally Matthews blankets her solo with an oscillation more akin to a tremolo than a vibrato. The sonics are dry and uninspiring, while an awful edit that amputates two beats out of “und leben” at around 6:07 into the sixth movement adds insult to injury.
But the worst thing about this performance is, without a doubt, Gergiev’s incompetent direction. His conception is almost perversely rushed: he allows no time for meditation or reflection in the middle movements at all, and the only time he ever shows a hint of sensitivity is in the first movement. Thus the third to sixth movements fly by in record-breaking time: 8:16, 4:19, 6:17 and 9:20 (!) respectively. Now I have no objections to a fast tempo–Gardiner’s recording on Philips was similarly brisk, but such was Gardiner’s masterly grasp of the musical architecture and attention to detail, the tempo actually enhanced the performance’s sense of physicality and drama. Gergiev’s tempo completely works against the music: it does nothing to make it sound more exciting, bring the listener’s attention to the long line, or enhance the fluidity of the phrasing; on the contrary, it ruins the ensemble (everyone seems to have a hard time keeping up with Gergiev’s mad tempo), strains the voices (the chorus in the fugal sections at the end of the third and sixth movements), obscures virtually all of the magical detail that makes Brahms’ writing so genius (brass is completely swamped, woodwinds too, and the horn arpeggio in Wie Lieblich is all but inaudible), and generally gives the impression of being rushed through mercilessly, as if Gergiev was late for an appointment somewhere else. What on earth was Gergiev thinking?
I could go on and mention that practically every Brahms Requiem on the market is better than this, and that given the fierce competition this completely fails to live up to it, and that this is a monumental dive from LSO’s usual good standards, but you probably know that already from my review, and you most probably would agree profusely the first few minutes you hear this performance. Let me put it this way: the only good, as opposed to irredeemably awful, thing about this sorry performance is the choir, which sounds pretty marvelous, thanks to Simon Hasley. Not Gergiev. Certainly no thanks to Gergiev.
- Album name: Brahms: German Requiem
- Performers: Sally Matthews (soprano); Christopher Maltman (baritone); Valery Gergiev (conductor); London Symphony Chorus; London Symphony Orchestra
- Label: LSO LSO0748
- Sonics: Stereo DDD
- Total playing time: 64:07