BBC Legends BBCL 4246, 74:21 [Distrib. By Koch] ****:
The 26 August 1978 inscription in Usher Hall, Edinburgh of the Brahms A German Requiem brings an ensemble of stellar talents together, including the legendary baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b. 1925), whose personal association with this affecting work dates back to 1947, when he would then, systematically, add to the color of his interpretation and effectively replace Hans Hotter as the artist of special record in the mind of the public. Having already cut three recordings of the Brahms, one with Kempe (1955), Klemperer (1961), and Barenboim (1972), Fischer-Dieskau had evolved a plaintive, personal style for his third movement plea to Heaven, and his sixth movement invocation to the ephemerally transient storms that resolve to remove Death’s sting from our mortal coil.
Romanian soprano Ileana Cotrubas (b. 1939) brings her considerable operatic experience to the fifth movement, here a lovely, aerial lament with selected woodwinds and dark strings. By the end of the movement, a special radiance becomes palpable in the musical atmosphere. A decided air of mystery emanates from the responsive chorus prior to the counter theme, where flute and weeping strings follow her high-borne tessitura. The London Philharmonic players enunciate their respective parts with impeccable color and fine taste, seamless, etched Brahms.
No less pliant and plangent is the Festival Chorus, beautifully prepared by John Currie, especially in the fourth movement’s How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place, whose easy grace and plastic symmetry brings one of the few moments of serene consolation in this often melancholy work. Conductor Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005), although a lover of the music of Brahms, long eschewed the Requiem for aesthetic reasons, unable in his musical logic to synthesize the “contrived,” contrapuntal elements of the score–say in the second, third, and sixth movements–with the emotional authenticity, lyrical or dramatic, of the other parts. Whatever his personal reservations, Giulini–who never committed the work to disc in the studio–elicits a liquid, often muscular line from his combined forces, seeming to have restrained his immense energies, despite the waltz-march of the All Flesh is Like Grass movement, for the mountain of sound that pours forth in dire admonitions and spiritual victory of movement six. Ultimately, fervent rhetoric yields to the resigned humanity of the Blessed are the Dead movement seven, literally an other-worldly moment of metaphysical compassion. What was it Shaw said in Saint Joan: “O God, who madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive thy saints?”