A guide to Brahms’s A German Requiem and its best recordings
Natasha Loges explores Brahms’s unique reflection on the journey towards the grave and the afterlife as she compares the best recordings of A German Requiem
A ‘sort of German Requiem’ – this was the unformed compositional plan that the 32-year-old Brahms announced to his friend Clara Schumann in a letter 1865. Four years later, this magnificent work fulfilled the prophecy of Brahms’s genius made by Clara’s husband Robert in 1853.
When did Brahms compose A German Requiem and what inspired it?
Brahms began to write his A German Requiem roughly midway through the long, tortured process of composing his First Symphony, a work begun in 1854 but not premiered until 1876. Aged 32 at the time, his output up to this point had consisted largely of solo piano works and chamber music – one notable exception was his First Piano Concerto which, after an underwhelming premiere in Hanover in 1859, had gone on to enjoy a better reception elsewhere. That same year had also seen him break off his engagement to Agathe von Siebold who, he later told a friend, was the last love of his life.
The requiem emerged from a decade of turmoil. The composer was moving between cities, seeking professional opportunities. He was absorbing musical influences ranging from Wagner’s operas to Schubert’s choral and orchestral works, which were emerging posthumously in Vienna. He also held his first demanding job as conductor of the Vienna Singakademie, a role that exposed him to several centuries’ worth of choral repertoire.
However, circumstances were increasingly troubled at home in Hamburg. Following her separation from Brahms’s father, the composer’s beloved mother Christiane died of a stroke, aged 76, in early 1865. Johannes rushed home but was too late to see her. By April, he sent Clara Schumann two movements of the Requiem.
The rest of the year was preoccupied with concerts and other compositions, but Brahms returned to the Requiem in early 1866. Three movements were trialled unsuccessfully in Vienna, but some listeners recognised that it was perhaps too austere, too ‘Bach-Protestant’ for the pleasure-loving Viennese. Brahms’s friend Albert Dietrich sent the score to the organist of Bremen Cathedral, Karl Reinthaler. He was so impressed that he organised a performance for Good Friday, to be conducted by the composer himself.
At that point there were six movements, settings of Lutheran Bible texts Brahms had collated himself, which trace a trajectory from suffering to acceptance: the first movement opens, ‘Blessed are they who mourn’; the dramatic second movement opens by declaring that all flesh is like grass, but the word of the Lord endures; the third introduces the baritone soloist, who pleads with God for acceptance of his transience; the sunny fourth, the most popular standalone number, contemplates the beauty of heaven; the original fifth movement matches the second, setting the famous ‘The trumpet shall sound’, and continuing to demand ‘Death, where is thy sting?’; reconciliation is achieved in the last movement with the words ‘Blessed are the dead’.
However, Reinthaler pointed out a hitch, namely that none of the movements clearly stated Christian doctrine. Brahms responded that he’d deliberately omitted such passages. A compromise for the premiere was achieved by including the aria ‘I Know that My Redeemer Liveth’ from Handel’s Messiah. The performance was a huge success – for Dietrich, it was ‘simply overwhelming’ – and Brahms was celebrated afterwards at a banquet.
Inserting the Handel aria was clearly a sticking-plaster solution, so Brahms wrote a new fifth movement, for soprano solo and chorus, on the words: ‘Now you mourn, but I will comfort you like a mother’. For many, this is the expressive heart of the work, recalling Brahms’s own tragic loss.
Historians have also argued for other possible associations: for instance, with the death of Schumann, Brahms’s mentor and friend; with a broader humanist message; and finally, with a nationalist imperative. Certainly, the Requiem, completed just before the Franco-Prussian War, touched German listeners, symbolising the dead of war as well as signalling the emergence of a new empire.
Nevertheless, the work was soon performed all over Europe, including in a piano duet performance in London in 1871. Given its vast performance tradition, it’s hard to pin down Brahms’s intentions. For example, most of the tempo markings in early versions were simply Andante. Later, he replaced the first movement Andante with Ziemlich langsam und mit Ausdruck (‘Quite slow and with expression’), suggesting a weightier, more nuanced conception. Similarly, the Andante con moto of the final movement was replaced with Feierlich (‘ceremonially’) – regardless of how it is done, it remains challenging even for experienced choirs.
Nearly 30 years later, Brahms asked his publisher to remove the metronome marks from the score, saying that ‘good friends’ had persuaded him to add them. This has led to much controversy in the best way to present his intentions. The preparation of a new edition of the work by the team of the Brahms Collected Edition has taken decades – but Brahms-lovers can rejoice that it is finally in print.
The best recordings of Brahms's A German Requiem
Daniel Harding (conductor)
Christiane Karg (soprano), Matthias Goerne (baritone); Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Daniel Harding
Harmonia Mundi HMM902635
Recordings of Brahms’s large-scale choral-orchestral works have to pass two acid tests: first, the balancing of massive structures so that the whole thing hangs together, neither rushing nor dragging;
and secondly, the handling of texture, so that listeners can hear individual orchestral-vocal lines and timbres, but also enjoy the seamless fusion of the gigantic collective sound which give such works their meaning.
Harding’s sense of structure in this 2019 recording is assured and persuasive, evoking a slow, dignified but steady move from the depths of grief into a bruised but courageous renewal. The orchestral sound is revelatory, evoking the austerity of a church organ without relinquishing a jot of emotional weight. The unusual string sound borrows much from the world of historical performance, but without sacrificing the luxurious sound and emotional vulnerability that come with the use of vibrato. The choir sounds both substantial and luminous, with crystalline German, effectively navigating the long and demanding fugues.
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The second movement – the most overwhelming, almost Verdian number – begins with an exquisite weariness, evoking the dragging feet of slowly processing mourners. The build-up to the climactic cry that ‘all flesh is as grass’ leaves the listener broken, before the visceral relief at the major-key reassurance which follows. Matthias Goerne is a superbly racked soloist in the third movement – anyone who has helplessly contemplated their own mortality can relate to the Promethean despair (and the rage, in the repeated section) of that molten, burnished voice.
The fourth movement is tidily sung, but it is the orchestra that truly shines here, each timbre emerging, glowing from the overall texture, whether high winds, or rounded brass. It is an ideal set-up for the solo soprano movement that follows. Karg’s sound is dramatic, if not ideally matched to Goerne, but again it is the silky-smooth orchestral-choral sound that wins over. The sixth movement is the perfect dramatic corollary to the second, Goerne’s surprisingly tender utterance of ‘We shall be changed’ leading to tremendously exciting choral singing of ‘Death, where is thy sting?’. The stillness and tranquillity of the final movement brings a satisfying sense of closure and healing.
Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)
From the opening notes of this 1995 performance, we know that this will be a serious, dignified experience, characterised by a large-scale choral-orchestral sound and spacious, grand tempos. But there is pathos here, too; each phrase breathes naturally, never sounding regimented. Thomas Allen brings a rugged grief to his solos, while Margaret Price’s sound is both richly resonant and angelic. The pace picks up in the last two movements, beautifully conveying the mourner’s healing.
John Eliot Gardiner (conductor)
The vibrato-free Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique may divide listeners, but the payoff of this live performance from 2008 is the fabulous recorded sound quality across the range, from the throbbing subterranean bass which opens the work to the piercing, high solo winds of the inner movements. There is no rushing here; this is a measured, patient walk towards reconciliation with death. While Katherine Fuge and Matthew Brook are not the most distinctive soloists, they integrate beautifully into an ensemble characterised by creamily smooth strings and the Monteverdi Choir’s strong but agile sound.
Otto Klemperer (conductor)
ICA Classics ICAC5002
While some may find this 1961 recording too woolly, Klemperer’s handling of tempo and pace reveals a profound, deeply impressive sense of architecture. Hermann Prey sings the heart-rending baritone solos as if his life depended on it, while Elisabeth Grümmer’s mature, warm sound offers the reassurance and dependability often missing from more ‘girlish’ renditions. The Cologne Radio Choir’s German is remarkably clear, but they still offer an appealingly old-fashioned sound, smoothly eliding between notes and avoiding all sharp edges.
And one to avoid…
Brahms-haters often complain that they find his music claggy, densely textured and over-serious. James Levine’s 2004 recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra would reinforce that view – it is dirge-like without grandeur, unrelentingly static. The second movement is shapelessly slow; the fourth treacly and muffled. By the end, one feels no different from the start.
Natasha Loges is the head of postgraduate programmes and professor of musicology at the Royal College of Music. She is a regular critic for BBC Music Magazine and broadcaster on BBC Radio 3 and BBC TV. Her research interests include German song, concert history, 19th-century performance practice and gender studies, with a particular focus on the lives and music of Brahms and the Schumanns.