BSO: Brahms Requiem recording

I finally got around to ordering copies of the BSO’s Brahms Requiem recording (BSO Classics 0901); thanks to commenter SteelyTom for the prompt. I don’t, alas, have a SuperCD player or even good speakers at my disposal and am listening to it in my car and over headphones. But I’m enjoying it nonetheless.

As I wrote earlier, it’s a marathon of a piece, and the astonishing thing for me listening from the perspective of the audience is how little it sounds like a marathon. The opening is a little tricky: it’s a slow meditative movement, and there are distracting audience noises. But the second movement… I was listening in my car, which has superior sound reproduction (I love my Sennheisers, but with or without noise cancelling they trim off too many high frequencies), to this movement this morning, and had the volume cranked up to hear the quiet opening “Denn Alles Fleisch.” Brahms uses low strings and timpani to set the stage for the first statement of the theme by the chorus, then adds horns and an implacable crescendo underscored by the heartbeat of the timpani. When the chorus enters at forte it’s still a shock, a wall of sound that pushes the listener back, but is totally under control and comes back down to a simmer until it erupts again into another reprise, and then into the first fugue of the work. And I knew what was coming, and I had listened to the radio broadcasts, and I still had tears in my eyes.

I’m not an objective judge of the performance, so I’ll just note that despite some technical glitches, the final movement had me in tears again. Regarding the recording quality, I will say that if the rest of the work sounds like the first and second movements did in my car, this is to be listened to on good speakers turned up, where it will transport you squarely into Symphony Hall. If Maestro Levine’s goal was transparency, he got it: if you close your eyes, you can tell from the stereo imaging that the chorus was arranged soprano, bass, tenor, alto on the risers, and each of the instruments are clearly audible, yet there is still that fine sheen of ambience from the hall that places you precisely in the room. It’s a wonderful recording and a great souvenir for me, and I’m hoping to hear how it affects you.

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