Recorded 23 & 25-27 January 2017, this version of the 1868 Brahms A German Requiem pares his otherwise monumental forces to a 33-voice choir supported by an instrumental octet, the result of arranger Iain Farrington’s having consulted the composer’s own piano-four-hands edition of the score. This chamber incarnation of this most intimately resigned of the Brahms compositions retains the piano in concert with those winds and strings that contribute to the work’s distinctive color. Brahms had turned away from the traditional Latin texts for his 'memorial' to both mentor Robert Schumann and his own mother, instead having selected verses from the Lutheran Bible. Brahms opts for consolation for the living, whose who must endure in the face of human finitude. The reduced forces immediately grant us the sensibility of a Lutheran motet in the manner of Gabrieli, Schuetz or Bach, imploring a 'generic' Lord to grant spiritual respite to those who mourn. Mixed with pleas for emotional relief we find sudden urges to find joy or even bliss, while the symmetrical structure of the work, at movement four’s 'Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen' from Psalm 84 provides the fulcrum of the composer’s spiritual repose.
Having been initiated into the glories of this work by way of the German masters Karajan (1947 recording), Klemperer, Kempe, and Furtwaengler (from Stockholm), my hearing the transparent, salon style of the B flat minor 'Denn alles Fleisch es its wie Gras' somewhat disconcerted me, although the message of life’s fragility receives its due. The funeral march in waltz rhythm has its consolations, especially since the text considers the notion of 'patience' in order to receive redemption. The chorus celebrates the radiance of such contemplation, releasing that exuberance in the words of Isaiah. The thrust of 'Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit' still manages to invoke the layered litany of eternal rejoicing.
Baritone Matt Sullivan addresses the individual’s relation to the transience of life and the anguish of existential doubt in the solemn, 'Herr, lehre doch mich', though the timbre of his voice cannot equal the weight of Hans Hotter or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The tension, however, conductor Hill maintains, especially with predominance of the pedal D in the course of a double fugue that ends in a resolute D Major, an effect likely meant to invoke the old masters like Palestrina. The fourth movement, 'How lovely is thy dwelling place' establishes the notion of spiritual transition, the acceptance of what constitutes a pastoral vision of eternal repose. The presence of the solo violin in the texture warms the occasion as the rhythms enter a courtly, even lulling, dance close in spirit to the airs in Bach’s liturgical works.
The string quartet that accompanies the soprano entry of 'Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit' produces a luminous clarity as Natasha Schnur implores the Lord for comfort. The subext implies maternal consolation without invoking Mary directly. The words from Ecclesiastes, rather than speaking of 'vanity', speak of a labor that bears sustaining power. For a cinematic equivalent, one would screen Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette. Among Hebrews, Corinthians, and Revelation, Brahms creates a sixth movement that compresses his spiritual drama into potent dynamo. Baritone Sullivan carries us along with the chorus until the literal 'twinkling of an eye' convinces that we shall all be changed. The last trumpet sounds, and the terror and majesty of a volatile fugue erupts, though in reduced volume in this version. Perhaps, for that very fact, the effect becomes more personal. Paralleling Handel’s Messiah, Brahms sets the same words 'Siehe ich sage euch ein Geheimnis' that occur for solo bass. The 'mystery' (in F sharp minor) explodes in a dazzling, fugal series of modulations that culminate in the ascension of Jacob’s Ladder as a testament to the spirit’s victory over Death.
Brahms returns to the opening movement motifs—in F Major—to make his faithful circle complete. The sopranos shine in their consolation to the living, ending with repetitions on the word 'Selig', the first word of the entire piece, much as an archetype for Mahler to employ his 'Ewig' in The Song of the Earth. Here, as in the opening movement, we detect the influence of Bach’s Cantata No 27, 'Who knows how near to me my end?' The light that infuses the mixed voices for the 'Blessed' utterances has become a celebratory madrigal, a song of hope.