Brahms's German Requiem Mastered by an International Cast

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Take a German orchestra, a Swedish choir, and two of today’s leading French singers, and bring them all under the baton of Estonian-American conductor Paavo Järvi. The result is a new recording of Brahms's German Requiem (Ein Deutsches Requiem) that is among the most appealing in recent memory.

The oldest son in a conducting clan that includes father Neeme Järvi and brother Kristjan Järvi, Paavo Järvi recently finished a largely well-received decade as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He’s now shifting his focus back to Europe, where he became music director of the Orchestre de Paris in September. He also holds posts in Germany with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra.

Järvi has just the temperament for a work like the German Requiem. Unlike a more traditional, somber Mass for the Dead, the German Requiem builds on themes of comfort and humanism. The composer took up the work on it after his mother’s death in 1865, completing it three years later. In place of Latin liturgy, Brahms set passages from the Lutheran Bible, and there are allusions to Bach throughout.

The Frankfurt Radio Symphony brings a wide range of dynamics and careful gradations of sound. The Swedish Radio Choir, one of the best choral groups around, sings very expressively yet with appropriate restraint. Natalie Dessay, a frequent Met star, gives a passionate performance of the devilishly difficult fifth-movement soprano solo while Ludovic Tézier brings a rich, penetrating baritone. This may not be breezy summertime listening, but its contemplative power is well worth your time.

Brahms's A German Requiem
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra / Paavo Järvi
Swedish Radio Choir
Natalie Dessay, soprano
Ludovic Tézier, baritone
Available at

Q2's Album of the Week:

This week, Q2 goes back to 2008 for its Album of the Week for Gabriel Kahane’s self-titled album of artful 21st-century lieder. Kahane, the son of renowned and ebullient conductor and pianist Jeffrey Kahane, has carved out his own unique niche in the ever-blurring DMZ between classical and pop music, showing off both sides here.

The opening ballad, Durrants, with lyrics like “And we’re holding a love that’s passed/In a drawer under last year’s stale cigarettes/One that burned up the photograph/We lived in” has the literary merit of a postmodern Nabokov or Hemingway tempered with a pop song cadence that seems more on par with Kahane’s colleague and indie darling Sufjan Stevens, who is also featured on the track Slow Down. Yet a string-infused undercurrent (one that is echoed in an interlude that takes us to the second track, North Adams) belies the idea that Kahane would have done well for himself a century ago in Vienna, possibly with a stop over in 1920s Paris to show Cole Porter a thing or two about lyrical wordplay and catchy melodies.

Kahane proves in this album (with the longest track clocking in at just five minutes and 22 seconds) that length is irrelevant. Works like Rochester (four minutes and 22 seconds), Middhagh (two minutes and 27 seconds) and The Faithful (four minutes and 14 seconds) are self-contained, chamber symphonies with identifiable, beguiling movements. They’re smartly balanced with several other brief interludes, like the Bach-ian Wie Soll Ich Dich Empfangen and ode to Schoenberg Arnold Corrects the Papers While My Grandmother Washes His Children—the former a nod to a chorale by the same name in Weihnachts Oratorium, the latter an accurate title given that Kahane’s grandmother once babysat for Schoenberg.

If the elements all sound disparate, however, they form a compelling and kinetic whole, aided by a cast of supporting musicians including Stevens, Chris Thile and Sam Amidon, that signal a significant artist on the rise. And fortunately, we don’t have to wait much longer for Kahane’s next recording—his sophomore effort, Where Are the Arms, is due out in September.

Gabriel Kahane
Magdeburgh Music
Available at


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Comments [3]

Neil Schnall

In 1986, to mark the retirement from NYU of Prof. E. Jon de Revere, he conducted a performance of the Brahms Deutsches Requiem at Alice Tully Hall. To prepare the New York University Choral Arts Society (NYUCAS) for this concert (which was performed with orchestra), I was engaged by Prof. de Revere (its long-time director) for the semester as rehearsal accompanist. It was a thrill to have the opportunity to learn this great work from the inside out. In particular, I took pains to try to evoke at the piano the inflections of the instruments that are used in the orchestra. I don't know if anyone noticed that, but it gave me pleasure. For the performance itself, I slipped into the bass section of the chorus.

The NYUCAS was a co-ed outgrowth of the New York University Varsity Men's Glee Club of which I had been a member. Over the years, the Glee Club gave many concerts in The Town Hall (mentioned below by Mr. Meltzer). That venue had, in fact, been owned by NYU for a long time. It was also a favorite site in more recent years for the quinquennial concerts of the NYU Alumni Chorus.

Jun. 07 2011 01:12 PM
Michael Meltzer

It has been suggested over the years, that Brahms should have been specially cited for excellence or given a literary award for the aptness, power and effectiveness of his scriptural text-selection and editing of the words for the German Requiem.
I would suggest to WQXR that, having already gone to all the trouble of preparing an Album of the Week site for it, you add a page with an English translation of the text for your listeners. It would be a nice touch.

Jun. 06 2011 08:48 PM
Michael Meltzer

I first heard the Swedish Radio Choir about 35 years ago, when conductor/publisher Norman Luboff sponsored their first American tour under Eric Ericson. They were a revelation.
I had never before heard a choir match, in richness and elegance, the shimmering sound of a string orchestra. These 40 or so perfect-pitch, perfectly synchronized singers also created about 3 times the volume as any of the 200-voice amateur choirs popular in NYC at the time, they almost blew the roof off Town Hall on W. 43rd Street (a venue I'm surprised that more choruses don't seek out, it's a good one).
I look forward to the Brahms Requiem.

Jun. 06 2011 09:06 AM

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The Albums of the Week are compelling new recordings that we spotlight every week. These include creative repertoire choices, engaging musical personalities and artistic statements that stand out from the pack. You can hear the Albums of the Week throughout the day and evening on WQXR.