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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Concert Review: For the Faithful Departed

Christoph von Dohnányi leads Ein Deutsches Requiem.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Christoph von Dohnányi.
Photo by Silvia Lelli © 2015 Salzburg Festival.
In the weeks following the attack on New York on September 11th, 2001, Brahms' massive choral work  Ein Deutsches Requiem has acquired special significance for the New York Philharmonic. For it was then that music director Kurt Masur chose the work to comfort and soothe the trouble city which was coping with inexplicable violence and terrible grief. This week, the Requiem returned to New York under the aged but firm hand of Christoph von Dohnányi to offer its unique message: an emphasis of comfort to the bereaved.

Written in 1863, Ein Deutsches Requiem was wholly Brahms' invention, and stands sui generis in choral literature. The composer eschewed the usual Latin text of the Requiem mass and its threats of an angry God, hellfire, judgment and possible eternal damnation for a collection of liturgical texts (drawn from the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha) assembled into a libretto and set with great care by the composer in one of the early peaks of his career. The piece was inspired by the loss of Brahms' friend Robert Schumann in 1856 and also by the death of his mother, which caused the composer to insert the fifth movement in his 1868 revision.

On Friday night, Mr. Dohnányi led a perforamnce that was notable for its texture and fine balance between orchestra and the massed forces of the New York Choral Artists. The smooth and carefully prepared blend of the choristers can be credited to the hard work of their director Joseph Flummerfelt, who is celebrating his final season before a well-earned retirement. Here, they sang the first words of the opening movement in a kind of awed hush, expressing reverence not just for Brahms and the liturgical subject matter but for the ramrod-straight 86-year-old conductor who stood before them on the podium.

At about an hour, this is the longest work in Brahms' catalogue. And yet, Mr. Dohnányi's guidance made the journey short and relatively sweet. As a whole, this performance captured that quality of comfort and the healing of grief that inspired Brahms to create the piece in the first place. For a city in the depths of winter, and for an orchestra that is undergoing radical trastions in its leadership while enduring the loss of two past music directors in recent months, there could be no greater gift.

A slow, heavy ground bass dominated the second movement ("Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras") a trudging meditation on the passing nature of mortality. The music rolled inexorably forward, rising eventually to a thunderous fast section with the thick tone of the orchestra perfectly supporting the massed voices. In the third movement, the serene mood was re-established with the first entry of solo baritone Matthias Goerne, who looked relieved that he could stop fidgeting on his chair and finally have something substantial to sing. His sweet, almost caressing tone added to the concepts of consolation and mortality that dominate this work, and reflect the influence of his teacher Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Mr. Dohnányi led a potent and lively performance of the fourth movement ("Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen") almost scherzo-like and an indicator of Brahms' development as a master melodicist in the footsteps of Beethoven. The choral writing here is far more flexible than in Beethoven's two big settings of the Mass, easier on the voice and supported by Brahms' abilities as an orchestrator and supporter of the sung line.

The solo soprano (who only sings in the fifth movement) was Camilla Tilling, a Scandinavian singer. She brought a silvery upper register to her high notes, soaring over the orchestra with a smooth legato. However, her tone turned watery and thin when a richer, more profound sound was required. Still, Mr. Dohnányi supported her performance of "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit" with the utmost care.

Far better: Mr. Goerne's performance in his solo in the sixth movement, his voice shaping each sung syllable with the utmost care and the maximum effect in terms of the meaning of the text. He then resumed his slouch in front of the orchestra. The final, choral movement was a testament to Mr. Dohnányi's skill and power as a conductor and Mr. Flummerfelt's expert choral preparation: a glorious close to a memorable performance.

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