This is a great over-generalisation, but most recordings of Brahms's German Requiem fall into one of two camps: the weighty, monumental, slow way of "old school" maestros such as Klemperer, Tennstedt and Haitink; or crisp, modern, "historically-informed" briskness (Gardiner, Herreweghe, Norrington). Simon Rattle's 2007 EMI release displays traits of both (it clocks in at 67 minutes, a good 10 minutes faster than Haitink et al) but ultimately aligns itself more comfortably with the silky-smoothness of tradition.
This new release from Nikolaus Harnoncourt is even more of a dichotomy. On the one hand, it's a generally slow-paced account (72 minutes), and the Vienna Philharmonic sound is unashamedly plush - the opening bars exude a sumptuously warm glow; but sharp articulation, vivid orchestral detail and precise choral diction ensure plenty of momentum and buoyancy. The serious tread of "Denn alles Fleisch" has an alert agility that belies its measured tempo (in contrast with the dirge-like mire of many versions) and its fortissimo passages stun with granite-like might. The jubilant fugue at the end of the movement is steady, but driven - with edge-of-the-seat urgency - by vibrant orchestral punctuation. There is brilliant definition to the trumpet fanfare motifs in the third movement, the concluding fugue of which is super-powered by a rock-solid bass trombone foundation.
The formidable Arnold Schoenberg Choir is a major asset, more than capable of sustaining drawn-out phrases with unflagging energy, its tone rich and radiant but also superbly clear. Harnoncourt encourages the choir to make sense of the text, with excellent results, but his propensity to micro-manage can be a hindrance - take the fussy bulges in the opening movement on each word of "Die-e mi-it Tra-nen", for example, or the over-sculpted hairpin on "Das Gras ist verdorret".
Harnoncourt's internal phrasing makes heavy weather of the sublime fourth movement (contrasting with Rattle, at his most relaxed and gracefully long-lined here), and tension sags in the colossal "Herr, du bist wurdig" fugue of the sixth. But the turbulent "last trumpet" episodes bristle with electrifying intensity, and commanding baritone Thomas Hampson is gloriously mellifluous. Soprano Genia Kuhmeier shines in the intimate and free-flowing fifth movement, her delivery sophisticated and nuanced.
Despite its drawbacks, this fascinating and characteristically idiosyncratic account of the German Requiem offers a wealth of authoritative insight. It's certainly a recording to which I will be returning.