BBC Legends BBCL 4234-2 , 76:41 [Distrib. Koch] ****:
Any new, unearthed recording by Klaus Tennstedt (1926-1998) becomes an immediate cult classic, and his live rendition of the Brahms German Requiem (26 August 1984) from Royal Albert Hall will find many eager acolytes wishing to supplement Tennstedt’s commercial EMI inscription with this monumentally personal realization of an epic moment of spiritual consolation.
I recall a conversation about the Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem with choral conductor extraordinaire David Randolph, who submitted that as time went on, he conducted the piece at an increasingly slower tempo. So the present performance, like that by Fritz Lehmann for DGG, conforms to this massive conception of the work’s seven-movement architecture, a colossal acknowledgement of loss, resignation and acceptance in alternately mighty and lyrical modes. Tennstedt’s insistence on clear diction, long syllabication and tender nuances makes itself present in every bar, especially in the march-waltz All Flesh is as Grass movement, whose middle section supplicates tender mercies. The tympani part, in collaboration with the yearning sopranos, forms the very paradox of life’s mystery. The triumphant outburst of brass and male voices heralds a spasmodic convulsion of rebellion, a raised fist against Heaven worthy of King Lear, tragedy that borders on jubilation.
There is something antique, perhaps a musical remnant of Schuetz, in the way Brahms sets his baritone meditation which Thomas Allen so poignantly characterizes as a cosmic reprimand to pride and ambition. The chorus extends the plaint, muted trumpets and winds providing a kind of organ sound that leads to the melody Dvorak adopted for his Cello Concerto. Spasms of despair over a series of pedal tones concretize the inevitability of Man’s Fate. The middle section hints at the earlier serenades Brahms wrote, Allen’s voice gaining in noble poise and restrained outrage, at once. The huge, polyphonic pedal on D suggests that even though we praise God, He has much for which to answer. The Lovely Dwelling Place, on the other hand, is silky lightness and grace, a sentiment carried further by Lucia Popp, who often sang for Tennstedt in Mahler and Beethoven. Her sweetly aerial “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” will doubtless be compared to Schwarzkopf’s equally rapt, fluid renditions, especially the late version she made for EMI with Klemperer. The oboe and viola emerge poignantly as Popp and an incandescent chorus lift us to visions of eternal bliss.
The cosmic battle occurs in the sixth movement, “Denn wir haben hie bleibende Statt,” the tension between life’s being altered “in the blink of an eye” of the skeptic pitted against the power of faith to remove “thy sting” of Death. Tennstredt graduates his tempi to achieve a frenetic, colossally optimistic credo prior to the four-part polyphony that rushes out among the high sopranos and becomes a march towards salvation. Swelling harmonies surround us under illuminated strings, the lower strings and winds urging themselves upward, yearning for comfort, the last chord pushing back the waves of the Red Sea. Expansive longing marks the final movement – “Blessed are the Dead,” Tennstedt’s diminuendi as pungent as his long-held suspended harmonies. The oboe again leads us into an aether of rarified pathos, and we recall the awful, self-destructive passion within Tenndtedt’s own soul: eating a Chinese dinner with companion Kurt Masur and smoking his four packs – even after his diagnosed throat cancer – Tennestedt replied to Masur’s admonition to guard his health and his God-given talent with “You sound like my mother.” A labor of love from participants all.
— Gary Lemco