Moving, Sublime Moments in BSO Brahms Requiem

“Selig sind die Hörer!” (Blessed are those who hear!) Last evening, the venerable maestro, Christoph von Dohnányi led the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, soloists Anna Prohaska and Hanno Müller-Brachmann in Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem at Symphony Hall. Prohaska’s appearance marks her debut with the BSO, adding to her extensive experience in opera, lieder and oratorio. Müller-Brachmann has been featured as a soloist with several of the world’s most prominent ensembles under conductors of equal renown; he has also studied with a number of prestigious coaches, including one of the leading interpreters of 19th-century German lieder, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

The combined forces offered a sensitive, supple interpretation of the work’s varied textures and temperaments, and the chorus displayed a remarkable unity of concept in their rendition of the Lutheran texts conveying Brahms’s humanistic spiritualism. This high level of unification included an impressive rapport between conductor and chorus, conductor and orchestra, and even the less-frequently-found rapport between chorus and orchestra, all of which was well served by the chorus’s memorization of the work.

The only disappointment of the evening was the soloists. Although both executed their parts skillfully and gracefully (aside from an awkward initial entrance by Prohaska in the fifth movement), neither seemed to engage in the style or substance of Brahms’s work, remaining firmly in their own professional “terra firma.” Müller-Brachmann’s comportment, from his facial expressions to his posture (in addition to his singing style) were closer to what one would expect in of a light-hearted song cycle by Schubert or Schumann, the performance falling far short of the gravity of the baritone soloist’s quasi-theological texts. In the same manner, Prohaska’s performance largely resembled the light-hearted coloratura roles with which she has established her professional career rather than the tender mother figure that Brahms personified in the soprano solo from the fifth movement.

Soloists aside, the ensemble communicated Brahms’s message of “comfort for the living, rather than the beloved departed” (to paraphrase the composer) in a very moving fashion. A small amount of reticence at the opening of the performance completely vanished by the return of the first movement’s opening music, a moment that what was perhaps the most sublime of the entire evening. If the recapitulation of the first movement was the most sublime, then the return of the opening text in the second movement (“Denn alles fleisch es ist wie Grass/Then all flesh is as the grass”) was certainly the most moving. The ensemble offered a very tender rendition of the simply textured fourth movement, and its promise of eternal blessing after death. The sixth movement had its high and low points: the chorus’s staccato articulation at the opening led to a loss of the “horizontal” qualities of the musical and textual line, though the fluidity and intensity of lines that followed created a very effective buildup to the Vivace of the triumphant, “Tod, wo ist dein Sieg?” (Death, where is your victory?) Dohnányi’s choice of tempo in the Vivace was very exhilarating, though it was generally too fast to allow the chorus effectively to articulate of the syntax of the text. All of these issues disappeared, however, in the group’s exuberant rendition of the movement’s closing fugue. The final movement, “Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herrn sterben” (Blessed are the dead, who die in the Lord), offered a touching close to the group’s stirring performance.

Joel Schwindt is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at Brandeis University. In addition to performances as a vocalist and conductor, his writings have been published by the Baerenreiter-Verlag publishing house and the Choral Journal.

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