May 2000

Brahms - A German Requiem
Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Utah Symphony conducted by Craig Jessop
Telarc CD-80501
Released: 2000

by Tom Lyle

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Why should people who speak German have all the fun? To them, Brahms’ German Requiem is just another work in a seemingly never-ending supply of choral pieces sung in their native tongue. The German-language version of this masterpiece has not only become part of the classical repertoire, but also part of the German heritage of which the country is most likely very proud.

Brahms’ German Requiem was the first work to win him international acclaim -- and for good reason. It is a fantastic piece of music, regardless of lyrical content, and the lyrical content is what I think attracts many to it. Rather than a traditional Latin requiem mass, its German text is taken entirely from the Bible -- its content was chosen entirely by Brahms. But I like it more for its orchestral score, which is spiritual, haunting, and melodically powerful.

I have two versions that I listen to within my collection, one on LP and one on CD. The LP is the EMI boxed set of the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Otto Klemperer [EMI SLS 821, also available on CD on EMI Classics 66955]. It was a while before I bothered to find a decent version on CD, but then I finally picked up the version with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Robert Shaw on Telarc [80092]. It’s a barn-burner. If you’re at all curious about this work, and especially if you’ve had your doubts about Brahms, I implore you to check out this CD.

It’s a shame that Mr. Shaw didn’t live to record the English translation of this Requiem, which was his labor of love for such a long time. In fact, he wrestled with whether or not to even try to perform it in English because of the "inappropriateness" of the language, namely, how it would musically "fit" into the score. He struggled with different translations of the German and believed up until the rehearsals for the recording that this is no sense a "translation" of the text, but rather an adaptation of the King James version of the scriptures to the music. Unfortunately, Robert Shaw died less than three weeks before this CD was to be recorded. The associate director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the time, Craig Jessop, took Shaw’s place for the recording. Jessop worked with Mr. Shaw many times and was preparing the Choir for this performance at the time of Shaw's death.

I think this review would be much too long if I continued to explain the motivations and complexities behind the recording's creation. Also, as a listener, it hardly matters as much as to the circumstances behind the recording when I’m sitting in my listening seat spinning the CD. What I’m interested in, as I assume you are, is whether this CD is worth listening to more than once -- that is, whether it will transcend the mere novelty of a German work sung in English.

One of my first reactions to this CD was that the Utah Symphony has certainly come a long way. My apologies to all Utah natives who may be skewed by their home-field advantage, but the Utah has never struck me as more than a passable second (or third?) tier orchestra. On this CD they sound as if they are playing for keeps, and if it is just because they were well rehearsed, so be it. The results speak for themselves, and they certainly are in top form.

However, it was more than a bit disconcerting to hear the chorus recorded so loudly -- but I soon realized that this may be because the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is 325 members strong. The wall-of-sound produced by the throng of voices is very moving, and the MTC’s singing is without question quite impressive. To consider that one rarely has to refer to the libretto to decipher the text is quite a feat. Their diction, regardless of whether it is in an easily recognizable language, does not come across as forced. Much like the orchestra, they sound more than well rehearsed and noticeably enthusiastic with reference to the score. Part of the enjoyment of listening to this piece is in the sheer exuberance that the chorus, orchestra, and soloist bring to the work.

However, when switching back to my "reference" versions of this work, this recording falls a little short. Granted, if you want to hear a version in English, this is it. But aside from the uniqueness of the language and the mighty chorus, this is certainly not an "ideal" version of the German Requiem. First of all, as much as I initially enjoyed being sonically flooded by the large forces of the MTC, it more often overpowers the orchestra. They also seem to have trouble with dynamics, especially the pianissimo sections.

The orchestra also has some rough spots, as far as dynamics are concerned. One can hardly blame them, but throughout the piece the orchestra seems to have a tough time balancing their sound with the chorus. Tempo is also an issue, and I’m sure some will find fault with Jessop’s pacing, which seems a bit rushed in places and a bit slow in others. But still, overall he seems right on, especially in the all-important second movement where the text comes through ("Behold, all the flesh is as the grass"). One cannot help but be moved by these words combined with the awesome sounds emanating from the orchestra.

Even though I realized that using this large of a chorus probably caused the problem, I’m not sure if I should just blame the chorus for overshadowing the orchestra. Most likely it was a multi-tracked recording, and it could have easily been fixed during mix-down. Since I don’t have a home-theater setup, I’m hardly the person to speculate, but it’s possible that this CD would sound awesome in surround sound, and then all of my complaints about the chorus being too loud might be moot. On my system, the chorus seems like it was placed in front of the orchestra. How did this happen? First, Jessop is a choral conductor, and he might have emphasized the voices, intentionally or not. Second, I could blame the chorus; 325 voices is quite a mob, and they could hardly help themselves. Last, it might have been the Telarc engineers who chose to highlight the chorus.

I think others, especially those with a more scholarly knowledge of Brahms, might have problems with the English translation, but I certainly didn’t. Shaw did a fine job at matching the German meter, though I’m sure the academic world will analyze this version to death. Not only will they find problems with the meter, but also with the "translation." As a music lover, I find no problem with either.

In a nutshell, this is a fine German Requiem. It has its quirks, but if you want to hear a version of the German Requiem in English, not only is this the only modern CD available, but I don’t think there’s much to complain about other than the relatively minor nit-picks I expounded upon earlier. For those that don’t have a copy of the German Requiem, pick up Shaw’s Atlanta on Telarc. But if you pick up this English adaptation, it definitely has the potential to become a permanent part of your collection.