Thread: The search for the definitive recording of "Ein Deutches Requiem"

Posts: 9

Post by emaidel September 28, 2009 (1 of 9)
Brahm's "Ein Deutches Requiem" is one of the most glorious works of music ever written, and, at least according to ArkivMusic.com, has 80 different recordings of it available. Surprisingly, only three of those 80 are SACD's.

I actually own eight different recordings of the piece, including a poorly engineered recording of the Spartanburg Philharmonic Orchestra and Festival Chorus, in which I sang in the bass section. If it weren't for the overuse of compression, our recording would fare quite well against the professional versions, but alas, with a total lack of dynamic range, it sounds pretty horrible.

Five of the recordings I have are CD's, and the remaining three are SACD's. Those SACD's (in the order in which I purchased them) are:

Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on Telarc

Charles Levine with the Boston Symphony, Tanglewood Festival Chorus on BSO Classics.

Philippe Herreweghe with the Orchestre des Champs Elysees on Harmonia Mundi.

First, the Spano version: when I learned that Telarc was going to release this recording, I all but started salivating awaiting its arrival. Production of the SACD was delayed for many months, but eventually, the disc arrived. Aside from coming from one of my favorite recording labels, the disc also employed (for the first time, I believe) the use of the very expensive Sanken CO-100K microphone, which is capable of recording frequencies up to 100KHZ. When I first listened to it, I thought it HAD to sound good, due to the prowess of Telarc's engineers, and that super-expensive microphone, but after repeated listening, I have to say this is one of Telarc's genuine sonic duds. The performance is very good - not exceptional - but, at least very good, but the recorded sound, while lush and full, is overly bass-heavy (particularly with the deep organ pedals), and all but completely lacking in upper end detail. When the chorus and orchestra are performing at a double forte, as in the fugue portions of the sixth movement, the overall sound is a singular, homogenous blend of what should really be distinct sounds of instruments and vocalists. Since Telarc has produced so many other choral works that sound so super-spectacular (such as the multi Grammy-winning "A Sea Symphony"), I had hoped that the "Requiem" would sound at least as good. It just doesn't.

I have to admit that Spano has a marvelous way with the chorus, especially on the quieter passages, and he gets a sound from the women (particularly with their entrance in the second movement) that's breathtakingly lovely. Unfortunately, Spano has the dubious distinction of having replaced the late Robert Shaw, and having to live up to his many wonderful performances of the Requiem, and many other works. While Spano does at least an admirable job here, Telarc's engineers blew it.

The James Levine version: for whatever reason, this disc was all but impossible to purchase. Most of the online retailers carrying the disc listed "back-ordered," or "unavailable" for a long time, and still do to this day. The BSO website was also a genuine nightmare to navigate, making the purchase of this disc (and Levine's other recording of "Daphnis and Chloe") ridiculously difficult. Hopefully, that's not the case today.

And all of that's quite a shame really, because this is a genuinely fine performance and recording of the Requiem. While Levine's pacing is a good deal slower than most on several movements (the second and sixth, in particular), perhaps the term "stately" is more appropriate, as Levine's passion for the music is very evident throughout. The recorded sound on this SACD does wonders for the work too, placing the chorus up and behind the orchestra (where it usually stands), and has none of the "smearing" of the Spano/Telarc recording. The low organ pedal notes are strong and powerful, but not overpowering as on the Spano disc. Overally, it is a fine performance and recording, and my preferred SACD.

Lastly, the Herrweghe: this was the first SACD available of the Requiem, and has received favorable reviews. From the very start of the piece, the recorded sound of the orchestra is crystal clear, very well conducted by Herreweghe. Unfortunately, something goes very wrong once the chorus starts: for some reason or other, the bass section is either hard to hear, or completely inaudible throughout the entire recording. There is also no organ used, which further adds to the "bass-shy" characteristic. If it weren't for this unfortunate characteristic of this recording, I might have placed it at the top of the heap, but instead have placed it at the bottom.

So, which is the "definitive" version? Frankly, that version may not even exist, or at least, doesn't within my limited "collection." Out of these three SACD's, I give top marks to Levine's peformance, and place the Spano and Herreweghe peformances as a tie, as each has its merits, but also very real sonic disadvantages.

I'm very fond of the Robert Shaw performance on an older Telarc CD, originally recorded on the Soundstream digital tape recorder, but it suffers as a result of the 50KHZ transfer to 44.1KHZ. That which might have been the "definitive" work is the DSD-remastered SACD of the Shaw performance, originally scheduled by Telarc, but dumped by Concord Music. I had great expectations for that recording, as I have been so uniformly pleased with all of the DSD-remastered Soundstream recordings, but Concord Music has other ideas.

Post by Polly Nomial September 28, 2009 (2 of 9)
Thanks for your thoughts, I am playing this in November and will seek out the Levine to "help" with my practice.

Post by Lochiel September 28, 2009 (3 of 9)
emaidel said:

Brahm's "Ein Deutches Requiem" is one of the most glorious works of music ever written, and, at least according to ArkivMusic.com, has 80 different recordings of it available. Surprisingly, only three of those 80 are SACD's.

So, which is the "definitive" version? Frankly, that version may not even exist, or at least, doesn't within my limited "collection." Out of these three SACD's, I give top marks to Levine's peformance, and place the Spano and Herreweghe peformances as a tie, as each has its merits, but also very real sonic disadvantages.

Herreweghe is out for me; although well-sung, the lack of an organ is a deal-breaker.

I would like to hear Jimmy Levine, though I have some personal issues with sending him any of my money.

If it was released on SACD, Andre Previn's performance with the LSO on the LSO Live label would best many. Well-played, well-sung, with a balanced tempo - this is one of the better Requiem's to have come out in the last 5 years.

I also have an older recording with Kubelik/BRSO on the Audite label which is slow, but monumental and very much in the consolatory mood.

Have you considered the Karajan SACD available from Universal Japan? His 1960's Requiem is very good.

Post by Fitzcaraldo215 September 28, 2009 (4 of 9)
Thanks for your thoughts on "Ein Deutsches Requiem". It's a work that is beautiful beyond words, and one that I love immensely myself. I also have the same three SACD's and I completely agree with your assessment. The Levine is clearly the one to own, both for performance reasons and for sonic ones. Actually, I find it one of the very best recordings I own, and certainly the best for large orchestra and chorus - Mch being my preferred playback method. For me, it has displaced the wonderful Shaw Atlanta version. The Levine might not quite equal the Shaw performance-wise, but the involvement with the sound and impression of being there make it the one I would take to a desert island.

Post by emaidel September 28, 2009 (5 of 9)
Polly Nomial said:

Thanks for your thoughts, I am playing this in November and will seek out the Levine to "help" with my practice.

THere is a website - cyberbass.com - that will enable you to find the Requiem, and to listen to each of the chorus's parts separately. I used it extensively for my performance with the Spartanburg Festival Chorus. I also listened to several recordings too, both CD and SACD, to help out.

Post by emaidel September 28, 2009 (6 of 9)
Lochiel said:

Herreweghe is out for me; although well-sung, the lack of an organ is a deal-breaker.

I would like to hear Jimmy Levine, though I have some personal issues with sending him any of my money.

If it was released on SACD, Andre Previn's performance with the LSO on the LSO Live label would best many. Well-played, well-sung, with a balanced tempo - this is one of the better Requiem's to have come out in the last 5 years.

I also have an older recording with Kubelik/BRSO on the Audite label which is slow, but monumental and very much in the consolatory mood.

Have you considered the Karajan SACD available from Universal Japan? His 1960's Requiem is very good.

I'll have to check into the Karajan disc, but if it's too pricey, it'll be a no-go.

I too have several CD's of the piece, with my favorite being that by Simon Rattle on EMI. It too lacks an organ, and would be my choice recording for the piece - CD or SACD - if it had one.

Looks like I just might be adding to my Requiem "collection."

Post by akiralx September 28, 2009 (7 of 9)
Lochiel said:

If it was released on SACD, Andre Previn's performance with the LSO on the LSO Live label would best many. Well-played, well-sung, with a balanced tempo - this is one of the better Requiem's to have come out in the last 5 years.

I also have an older recording with Kubelik/BRSO on the Audite label which is slow, but monumental and very much in the consolatory mood.

Have you considered the Karajan SACD available from Universal Japan? His 1960's Requiem is very good.

Previn is a bit of a specialist with this work - have you heard his RPO version on Teldec? Supposed to be very good.

The Karajan is excellent, but I only have the DG Originals CD version, which still sounds well.

The SACD will be nigh-on impossible to source now, I suspect.

Post by breydon_music September 29, 2009 (8 of 9)
akiralx said:

Previn is a bit of a specialist with this work - have you heard his RPO version on Teldec? Supposed to be very good.

The Karajan is excellent, but I only have the DG Originals CD version, which still sounds well.

The SACD will be nigh-on impossible to source now, I suspect.

The Universal Japan SACD is worth searching for - one of the most astonishing of their remasters for the way it opens out the sound of this performance. The last copy of this I had was on LP in the 1970's so obviously equipment et al has changed since then, but I would never have guessed that the early '60's recording was so good.

At risk of broadening this thread, 2 others of this series stood out for me - the Bishop-Kovacevich Grieg/Schumann Philips disc, which I owned on LP and the first CD and always found inexplicably dull and lifeless as a recording but which is heard anew in the SACD remaster, and the Ashkenazy Rach 2/3 Decca from the early '60's where the tone and clarity of the piano is astonishing.

Of course it's probably my equipment and my room and my old ears but in general I preferred the Universal remasters to the Esoterics which have been issued so far.

Post by Peter September 29, 2009 (9 of 9)
breydon_music said:

...... and the Ashkenazy Rach 2/3 Decca from the early '60's where the tone and clarity of the piano is astonishing.

Of course it's probably my equipment and my room and my old ears but in general I preferred the Universal remasters to the Esoterics which have been issued so far.

I wish I'd got that one - I do like those performances. And what excellent conductors Kondrashin and Fistoulari were.

One thing the Japanese Universals and Esoterics have in common is price! Ouch.
I've been listening to Ansermet's Brahms - don't prejudge before listening, it's rather more rewarding than I had expected from received wisdom.

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