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Johannes Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem, op. 45
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Serenade in D Major, “Serenata notturna”, K. 239

Elisabeth Grümmer (Soprano), Hermann Prey (Baritone), Kölner Rundfunkchor, Bernhard Zimmermann (Chorus Master), Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester, Otto Klemperer (Conductor)
Recorded live in Cologne (25 October, 1954 [Mozart] & 19-20 February, 1956 [Brahms]) – 78’
ica Classics ICAC 5002 – Booklet with essays in English, French and German

This recording of the great Otto Klemperer conducting Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem is released for the first time here. Fans of the conductor, and of the work, will undoubtedly be familiar with his 1961 EMI recording, which some have held as a standard in the catalogue. What is so striking about this recording, captured some five years earlier during a radio broadcast, are the tempi Klemperer chooses. All but one movement are significantly and noticeably faster than the maestro’s later effort. For those of us who prefer our Brahms with a bit more leanness and briskness, this is good news. However, the result unfortunately does not automatically benefit from such treatment. Those that prefer a Gardiner-esque treatment of the piece are likely still to be left wanting here.

To state the obvious, faster is faster. Without execution and motivation, its purpose can be lost. Unfortunately, that is occasionally the case here in this 1956 recording. Things begin steadily enough, and then in the first movement at “Die mit Tränen,” the tempo picks up, as is common, but it seems an exercise detached from the motivation of the text. As in other moments throughout the recording, tempo and volume are invitations to fatten the sound, as opposed to moderate it with precision and focus. It is the difference between a soaring and soothing Requiem and a marching and heroic reading.

The second movement is brisk, and not just by Klemperer’s standards. His amount of rubato with what most conductors often convey as a steady funeral march is fascinating. In a way, Klemperer interprets Brahms’ dynamics as applying to the tempo as well. The organ is absolutely overpowering in “Aber, des Herrn wort.” “Ich hoffe auf Dich” in the third movement is disappointingly trampled through with some suspect tuning from the sopranos. The fourth and fifth movements are sung passionately, not subtly, with few surprises. Perhaps the most disconcerting moment on the recording is the transition in the sixth movement before “Denn es wird die Posaune” (zu der Zeit...). Klemperer dashes forward in a blaze, but loses Prey. Finally, the seventh movement is almost fierce in its stentorian power. Be prepared for the tenor entrance as it is positively overwhelming. If one thing is apparent, the forces in this live recording are swept away by the music and while the results aren’t perfect, they are fervent.

While Klemperer’s EMI recording may not be to everyone’s taste regarding tempo, it is at least agreeable that the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus were very fine indeed and the relatively early EMI recording did them justice. While the Köln forces acquit themselves and sing with shattering power here, they lack the technique to portray Brahms’ more tender moments with ease. The orchestra plays quite well with an impressive sense for Brahms’ lines. Many will enjoy hearing Elisabeth Grümmer and Hermann Prey as the two soloists. Ms. Grümmer’s is a technically accurate and beautiful instrument. She sings Brahms’ long phrases with wonderful shape. A young Hermann Prey is exemplary in both vocal heft and dramatic authority.

The sound quality is impressive for what surely must have been a sub-standard source, but it is still a far cry from studio recordings of the time. The mono recording has a narrow dynamic range and is often pushed to its limits trying to capture the massive forces. I wonder if the engineers did too fine a job in reducing the source hiss, as there is some upper extension to the sound that is dearly missed.

For this reason alone, this recording should only interest the enthusiast as an alternate Klemperer recording of this most beautiful piece of music. As I am not a big fan of the maestro’s EMI recording, this one is at least more palatable interpretively. I find it continuously growing on me and will return to it often. The Mozart is very well executed and a generous inclusion. Another nice bonus is a few minutes of Klemperer rehearsing the fifth movement of the Brahms the day before the performance, sans soloist. Even if you can’t understand the maestro’s German, you will enjoy hearing him fill in for Ms. Grümmer.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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