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Basking in Brahms: The NY Philharmonic presents 'A German Requiem'

by Photo of Paul Hansen

Review of New York Philharmonic Concert of 3/5/2016

Basking in Brahms: The NY Philharmonic presents 'A German Requiem'


As with the recently reviewed New York Philharmonic performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, the announcement of a series of performances of Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem  (A German Requiem) induces a certain sense of expectation if not awe.  As with Beethoven's Missa solemnis, Verdi's Requiem, and Handel's ever wonderful Messiah, Brahms' German Requiem can be appreciated regardless of religious affiliation because of the massive emotional and spiritual vistas which it explores.   Contemplating and hearing Brahms’ German Requiem is roughly the equivalent of standing in the low lands of the Alps while gazing at the impressive mountains above.  

Completed in 1869, the German Requiem is divided in seven sections with biblical texts chosen by Brahms himself.  (It is called A German Requiem in part because it is sung in German rather than the traditional Latin).  The piece is scored for full orchestra, chorus and a solo soprano and baritone.  

Although Brahms' music can be quite joyous (the third movement of his Fourth Symphony is sheer rollicking fun), he also had a definite sense of the tragic (he actually composed a Tragic Overture). Also prevalent in Brahm's music is a sense of melancholy. If you aren't familiar with it already, listen to the third movement of his Third Symphony which has a wonderfully misty elegiac atmosphere.  Clearly Brahms had the compositional palette to effectively explore the issues of death and remembrance.   But there is also a consoling tone to much of the Requiem which can be comforting to those experiencing the effects (and inevitability) of loss. 

There is some uncertainty as to why Brahms decided to compose a Requiem in his mid-thirties. Some speculate that he wrote the work in response to his mother’s death, and he did begin serious work on the piece shortly after her passing in 1865.   There is also conjecture that he wrote the work in response to the passing of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann who suffered a long and painful demise. 

The performance was authoritatively led by Christoph von Dohnanyi who appears to be hearty in his mid-eighties.  Maestro Dohnanyi has had a distinguished career, including being the music director of The Cleveland Orchestra from 1984 to 2002  (obviously no small accomplishment as George Szell and Lorin Maazel had been the two previous music directors of that esteemed orchestra).  Dohnanyi has also regularly conducted many of the major orchestras in Europe and the United States.   Camilla Tilling and Matthias Goerne gave fine performances of the solo soprano and baritone roles, respectively.  The large and impressive New York Choral Artists also performed admirably, and I particularly admired the manner in which they sang the contrapuntal aspects of the score. 

Although relatively short in length at 70 minutes or so, the Requiem was the only piece on the program.   This was appropriate as any other composition may quite probably have disturbed the meditative atmosphere of the evening.   Even before the music started,  it seemed that the audience was seeking sanctuary for a little over an hour to contemplate the profound musical, religious and philosophical currents of the work away from the random noise of the city outside.    At the conclusion of the performance, the assembled crowd seemed very appreciative, with one concert member I overheard happily saying, “The music went right through me.”

The series of performances of A German Requiem will conclude this Tuesday, March 8 at 7:30 pm at David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.    Music of this magnitude is particularly appropriate for those seeking to expand their spiritual horizons.   Contemplating mountains, both real and musical, obviously has a way of moving thoughts away from mundane matters. 

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