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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Concert Review: A Scoreless Tie

Daniele Gatti leads Ein Deutsches Requiem at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Slowhand: Daniele Gatti led the Vienna Philharmonic last weekend at Carnegie Hall.
Photo from
Last Sunday afternoon's concert at Carnegie Hall marked the end of the Vienna Philharmonic's three-concert Brahms-fest with that compser's Ein Deutsches Requiem. Brahms' longest and most challenging composition is a seven-part alternative to the Latin death mass, using German texts from the Lutheran Bible to offer comfort and consolation to the grieving instead of the (more usual) fire and brimstone.

This performance paired the Vienna Philharmonic (again under the direction of Daniele Gatti) with the Westminster Symphonic Choir, that magnificent ensemble that comes out of Rider College in New Jersey. The Westminsters are most often heard with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Pairing them with the white-tie players from Vienna was an unusual and in this case highly effective combination. The soloists were Christian Geraher and Diana Damrau, the German soprano who actually conducted the Vienna players a year ago at the end of the Vienna: City of Dreams festival.

Mr. Gatti chose a uniformly slow approach to the opening movement of the Requiem. The chorus entered almost imperceptibly against the rich strings of the Vienna Philharmonic. Mr. Gatti's slaggard tempi are in keeping with this work's somber character and message of comfort, but one yearned for the piece to find its feet and forward momentum as the gorgeous passages of strings and singing droned on.

The second movement, "Denn Alles Fleisch" swung like a great, heavy funereal bell, signalled by tolling strokes from the timpani and a sighing figure in the strings that presaged the writings of Mahler. A steady marching pace chosen by Mr. Gatti added to the weight of these words, which take the place of the customary Dies Irae, substituting a meditation on existence for the blazing wrath of God.

That wrath shows up in the third movement, at least in Brahms' choice of trumpets and timpani to announce the presence of the Almighty. "Herr Lehre Doch Mich" is the plea of mankind for understanding and learning from the Lord, and it was sung with pleasing tone and power by baritone Christan Geraher. The singer, who wowed New Yorkers earlier this season with his interpretation of Schubert's Winterreise was an effective voice crying in the wildnerness, dodging huge slabs of chorus and orchestration with his agile instrument.

Brahms did not cast all the movements of his Requiem at the same tempo, but Mr. Gatti's uniformly slow choices throughout the afternoon caused this performance to err on the side of meditation. Ms. Damrau did her best to cut through the stodge, but even her irrepressible onstage presence and familiarity with the Vienna Philharmonic could not save the later movements from Mr. Gatti's meticulous approach.

Ms. Damrau had her big solo in the final Selig sind die Toten, the closest that Brahms ever came to writing anything remotely approaching opera. The soprano was magnificent against the slow-motion orchestra, as was the chorus, who at moments sounded as if they were singing a cappella over the hushed orchestra. Their director Joe Miller must be credited here, for the professionalism of the Rider College singers and the clarity of their delivery and purpose made this final movement a transcendent experience.

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