Here are two recordings of the magnificent Brahms Requiem, one a DVD and the other an SACD, and both are quite different in approach and production characteristics. The most obvious difference is the timing: 83 minutes for Thielemann and 68:37 for Janowski. While that's more than a fourteen-minute difference, there's a little catch: Thielemann's recording has an extra two minutes or so added in for opening and closing credits and, because it's a live performance, it allows for more time between the seven movements. Thus, the difference between the two recordings is probably less than ten minutes. Still, Thielemann is far broader in his approach, but, as we will see, he makes a good case for his more deliberate rendition.
Another major difference is the sound reproduction: Thielemann's sonics are clear and powerful, fairly standard for a recorded concert on DVD; Janowski's performance, on the other hand, was recorded at a very low level, which is typical for Pentatone, in my experience. You'll have to crank up the volume a bit on the Janowski to equalize things, but once you do, the sound is clear and quite detailed.
"Detailed" is how I would describe Janowski's choral work, too. The various chorus parts come through with greater detail, most noticeably in the ending of the third movement, Herr, lehre doch mich. Thielemann, who doesn't read from a score during this live performance, blends the textures of the work in a more traditional and quite convincing way, in the end offering a rather epic view of the work. Where Janowski is more intimate and a tad restrained, Thielemann is bigger and comes across with more impact and drama. Generally, I would prefer Janowski's leaner tempos, but Thielemann deftly imparts tension and powerful emotions, never letting things flag.
As for the singers, I would give an edge to Thielemann's. Both his Christine Schäfer and Janowski's Camilla Tilling have attractive voices, but the latter, with her angelic sound, has more vibrato and a bit less intensity. Janowski's Detlef Roth has a creamy, smooth voice – quite attractive and imposing – while Christian Gerhaher is grittier and more effectively dramatic. Both orchestras perform well enough and, in the end, both readings are convincing, though, as the reader might suspect by now, the edge goes to Thielemann.
Herreweghe, on Harmonia Mundi, has the leanest Brahms Requiem I know, clocking in at 66:15. His is an excellent rendition, and so is Levine's, on a more centrist 1984 RCA set. With Kathleen Battle and Håkan Hagegård as his soloists, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, his is also a very worthwhile rendition. The two under review here can be recommended as well, and those reluctant to spend the extra for Thielemann's DVD should find Janowski's smaller-scaled approach to their liking.
Copyright © 2010, Robert Cummings