It was in 1865 that Brahms wrote to his great friend Clara Schumann that he was writing ‘a sort of German Requiem’.

The clue is in the title. As the basis for his work Brahms eschewed the more traditional Latin text for something more – well, German. The resulting choral work uses German texts from the Luther Bible. Brahms had significant knowledge of such texts and made his own selection. When the work was nearing its final form he did admit, however, that he would have been happy to characterise the work as a ‘human’ requiem, and it’s this freer spirit which has sealed its popularity as a concert work ever since.

If Brahms was mourning his mother (as Clara Schumann believed) the work transforms grief into an act of comfort. Ein deutsches Requiem was first performed in 1868 in Bremen Cathedral as a six-movement work (a further movement – the fifth - was added soon after). The final seven-movement version was premiered a year later at the Leipzig Gewandhaus and found critical success, in spite of George Bernard Shaw’s rather scathing verdict that “It could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker”. (Shaw was knee-deep in Wagner at the time and unlikely to appreciate the Requiem’s essentially classical structure or straightforward act of contemplation).

The choral writing profits from some wonderfully lyrical lines and is embedded within a generous but sympathetic orchestration. There are notable fugal sections forming the backbone of the piece, and solos for both soprano and baritone to add contrast.

This recording with the LSO under Valery Gergiev is taken from performances given in London in March 2013. The London Symphony Chorus under their chorus master Simon Halsey deliver a heartfelt account, with Christopher Maltman and Sally Matthews the distinguished soloists. Gergiev comes to this work with refreshingly little previous form, and draws a delicately sombre account from the assembled company.

James Mallinson, LSO Live Producer

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