The names of Belfast-born soprano Heather Harper and Kansas-born tenor James King may not resonate for younger music lovers, but they sure do for folks my age. Harper was the glowing, nimble soprano in Colin Davis’s renowned 1966 recording of Handel’s Messiah and in Davis’s top-flight recording (ca. 1978) of Britten’s Peter Grimes, featuring Jon Vickers. James King was a steady, sturdy singer, though less magical in sound than Harper. Among his memorable recordings are Das Lied von der Erde (with Fischer-Dieskau, Bernstein conducting) and Solti’s Ring Cycle (in which he sang Siegmund to Régine Crespin’s utterly lovable Sieglinde).
If I tell you here is the side of Brahms which kept a score of Parsifal open on his piano, I think we are more than halfway to understanding what Daniel Barenboim has tried to do with this composer and now achieves more fully and authentically than in his Chicago Symphony cycle recorded for Erato several decades ago. The Staatskapelle Berlin has always been a Brahms orchestra of the old school, as Otmar Suitner’s 1984 digital cycle for Berlin Classics, recorded in the Lukaskirche, wonderfully demonstrated, but Barenboim has maintained and encouraged its nutty/creamy sonority to new levels of evocative lushness and subtle woodwind tone coloration. He doesn’t aim to compete for brilliance with the Berlin Philharmonic. Indeed, the sound here boasts a theatrical darkness and elision, first, foremost and nearly always. I imagine this still resembles the burnished sonority my German father heard in Berlin before the First World War.