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.