BRAHMS: German Requiem – Sally Matthews, soprano/ Simon Halsey, baritone/ London Sym. Orch. and Chorus/ Valery Gergiev – LSO Live multichannel SACD LSO0748, 64:07 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***1/2:
Having just reviewed Antoni Wit’s magnificent and transcendent reading of the Brahms Requiem on a Naxos Blu-ray, I must say that this one comes as something of a disappointment. It is very well sung, no doubt about that, and both Sally Matthews and Simon Halsey both do very nicely in their parts, though to be honest, most soloists on record do a creditable job, and this piece is most assuredly not depended on the solo singers, as choral-intensive as it is. But the LSO Chorus is splendid indeed, and once again it seems that the folks at LSO Live are learning to tame the rowdy Barbican and come up with some surround sound that is not nearly as tubby and boxy as their early recordings—though that is still detectable. This one is just fine, thank you, and there is no fault or lack of expressive possibilities that are hidden away because of the engineers.
The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, but in the conductor.
To his credit, Gergiev makes his conception work to a large degree. There is a certain consistency in approach that announces itself from bar one, and he doesn’t waver from it an iota. He never does—this man is one of the most consistent conductors within a single piece of music that I know, like the conception or not. The problems are usually found among pieces of same style that he seems to get very finicky in his approach—like Tchaikovsky. But this is Brahms, and sturdy Brahms at that in a work that is tough to completely screw up, and he avoids this. And since we are on the fairness train here, many people will like this. I don’t dislike it, but as I said, the comparison with the Wit is quite telling, the Pole very much attuned to the quiet, pietistic, and mystical side of the composer while the Russian seems content to bring home the bacon in a no-nonsense, direct, white-walled and even Puritan-oriented reading of great strength and excessive quickness. This is one fast Requiem, and when we finally get to the emotional highlight of the piece, the sixth movement “Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt”, we are on a fast roller coaster to the afterlife. Actually this could be said of each movement to a certain extent, but here you really notice it. This is not Verdi’s Requiem, where the movements are to a degree designed for this sort of fury, but instead a calmer, more reflective work that gets the decidedly non-reflective treatment here.
However, as I said, some people like this sort of thing, and I am sure Gergiev’s rabid fans are lining up to get this. It holds up for sure—but check out Wit first.