This superb 1978 Brahms Requiem, bathed in glorious sound that lets you hear details in the chorus and orchestra often missed in other versions. Part of that, of course, is due to Kubelik's conducting. He always stressed proper balances, taking care to bring out details but never exaggerate them. Kubelik recordings usually also feature sane, middle-of-the road to slightly fast tempos, a wide dynamic range, and string sound that glows with warmth. They're all present here. In the Requiem, he's some five minutes slower than his atypically fastest competitor, Klemperer (EMI), and at 74 minutes somewhat slower than most of the other performances I checked. But the impression the recording makes is of spaciousness and expressive power; Kubelik never rushes or dawdles.
The choral first movement, "Selig sind, die da Leid tragen" (Blessed are they that mourn) encapsulates Kubelik's approach as it unfolds throughout the work. The very quiet opening is shrouded in warmth; even at pianissimo levels the chorus projects, the beautiful melody made more tender for being allowed to speak for itself. The slow rise in volume to the optimistically emphatic music of "werden mit Freuden ernten" (shall reap in joy) is perfectly calibrated as is the choral climb down from that dynamic peak.
Also impressive is the way the different sections of the chorus emerge and then retreat into the mass without spotlighting. The ensemble's tonal body is accurately caught by the engineers, who also conquer that bane of large-scale choral pieces--the difficulty of making out the words. Here, words are always intelligible, as are the chorus' subtle tonal inflections. Such details are replicated in the orchestra, whose winds briefly introduce a shaft of sunlit hope to accompany the faith-filled brightness of the chorus at the repeat of the "Blessed are they that mourn" line. Yet another instance is the discreet harp whose plucking illustrate the falling tears at the word "Tränen" (tears).
The rest of the performance continues in this fashion, with powerful dramatic contrasts and an abundance of revelatory details. Kubelik's accomplishment is not dimmed by his soloists, nor is it enhanced either. Baritone Wolfgang Brendel is a shade over-emphatic in his solo in the "Herr, lehre doch mich" (Lord, make me to know mine end) movement, apparently mistaking a request for a demand. Interestingly, the slight note of pleading in the chorus' tone when they repeat the line shows us how it should go. Brendel is better though, in his sixth-movement solo. Edith Mathis finds heavy going in the cruelly high tessitura of "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit" (And ye now therefore have sorrow), compromising both the comforting message of the text and her silvery bright soprano. Sampling some of the competition turned up no one who sounds as shakily fearful of the vocal difficulties, and even at Celibidache's painfully drawn-out tempo (EMI), soprano Arleen Augér remains smoothly unfazed. But these are minor blemishes on a treasurable recording, among the lesser evils that can beset a live performance. Even if you have the Klemperer, this Kubelik disc will enlighten and move you.--Dan Davis