Ein Deutsches Requiem
with Barbara Hendricks, soprano
José van Dam, baritone
Herbert von Karajan, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon, 1986, 1991
This is the last recording of Johannes Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem conducted by Herbert von Karajan in his long and successful career.
Ein Deutsches Requiem (its complete title is Ein Deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der heiligen Schrift: A German Requiem, To Words of the Holy Scriptures) was inspired to Brahms by the loss of his mother in 1865 and probably also by Robert Schumann’s death in 1856, even if there are no evidences to support this. It is anyway interesting that the Requiem is the first work where Brahms followed Schumann’s advice to «direct his magic wand where the massed forces of chorus and orchestra may lend him their power» (as Schumann wrote on Neue Bahnen).
Brahms wrote the Requiem between 1865 and 1868, using also preexistent musical material, and derived the text from Luther’s translation of the Bible in German (it is to the language rather than to the audience that the title refers). Even if it follows the path of the traditional sacred oratorio, this is a non-liturgical composition which actually does not belong to any genre.
The Requiem first three movements were performed in Vienna to mixed reactions in 1867, while the six movements which completed the work in Brahms’s original plan were received with enthusiasm in Bremen on Good Friday of the next year. The soprano solo Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit was added to complete the work and premiered in Leipzig in 1869. The success of the Requiem established Brahms as one of the most important composers of Europe.
Karajan is still extraordinary in this Requiem and you cannot fail to admire his precision, the unity of his vision and the pervasive tension which permeates his interpretation. The choice of tempi is very good and allows both to emphasize the feelings and to create impressive effects, as the timpani in Denn alles Freisch, es ist wie Gras or the violins in Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt. Karajan is tremendous in the most anguished moments, as if the doom is coming, but also light in the quietest ones. The Wiener Singverein and the Wiener Philharmoniker understand Karajan perfectly, as well as the two soloists, the baritone, José van Dam, disconsolate in its simple melancholy, and the soprano, Barbara Hendricks, the herald of hope with her silvery voice.