Harry Christophers / The Sixteen

Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem

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The Sixteen's version of Ein Deutsches Requiem follows a growing trend of recording the piece in its arrangement for piano duet rather than with the original orchestral accompaniment. Brahms made the arrangement himself to ensure the Requiem's broader dissemination, making it accessible for amateur choral societies. While it was purely a pragmatic move, the fact that it's Brahms' own arrangement gives it inherent musical interest. The advantage of the piano version is especially clear for chamber choirs like the Sixteen, who can bring to it the same crystalline precision and tonal purity that they bring to Renaissance and Baroque works, characteristics that are harder to achieve with the massive choral forces that usually perform the Requiem. Since they are a small chamber choir, it would be difficult to achieve good balance with Brahms' large orchestra, so the piano version makes good sense. While there are gains in hearing the piece sung with such choral transparency, the piano version has some drawbacks, primarily in its lack of sustaining power in the slower passages and the loss of the richly colorful orchestration. It's particularly noticeable in the first movement, where the piano just can't generate the depth and sustained grandeur of the orchestral version. Interestingly, when the same music reappears in the final movement, the ear has adjusted to the limited tonal palette and the deficit is less noticeable. The most successful movements are the more rhythmically active, where the pianists can tear up the keyboard in a torrent of sound that comes close to replicating the orchestral activity and can be really thrilling. Soprano Julie Cooper and baritone Eamonn Dougan perform adequately, but lack the vocal heft to make the solos riveting. The luminous performance by the Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers, makes this a recording that fans of choral singing may want to investigate, but it's unlikely to displace a favorite orchestral version. The recording level seems to be set unusually low, so the volume may need to be cranked up to get a full sound.

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