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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, February 9, 2019

Concert Review: Don't Damn Me

Jaap van Zweden leads Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Matthias Goerne (left) emotes as Jaap van Zweden (on podium) leads the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2019 The New York Philharmonic.

For the last year and a half, New York classical music lovers have cautiously watched as Jaap van Zweden settles into the hotseat at the helm of the New York Philharmonic.  This week, Mr. van Zweden delved into choral music with an enthusiasm that reminds one of the Kurt Masur years. His choice: Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem, a masterpiece that is a stern test for any conductor no matter their age or experience.

Brahms wrote this work in the wake of personal tragedy, having lost his mother and later his mentor Robert Schumann. The work ignores the standard text of the Roman Catholic death mass in favor of a German text, assembled by the composer from the Lutheran Bible. Using a similar technique to Handel's Messiah, Brahms chose a contemplative approach that focuses more on the grief of the bereaved than the wrath of God and the begging of forgiveness.

From the first rising bars of the opening movement, Mr. van Zweden chose a steady, measured approach that paid increasing dividends as the work progresses. The steady pace showed his great control over both orchestra and choristers, and the sturdy, inevitable march toward the first serious choral forte recalled past choral glories at this hall. The Concert Chorale of New York responded with similar focus and discipline, allowing the conductor to sculpt smoothly rising arcs of sound in the air.

Musically, this work balances Brahms' chief influence Beethoven with a look back towards the choral tradition established in the age of Bach. The two musical styles were fused by Brahms into something new that he could call his own, thick, shifting pillars of orchestrating supporting arches of sound. This balance acquires weight and momentum with the slow crescendo of "Denn alles fleisch," the chorus that anchors the second movement. The chorus falls silent for a determined slow march that may have anticipated the third act of Wagner's Parsifal. Then the tempo increased and the brass burst forth in an explosion of sound, culminating in a triumphant climax.

The first solo is "Herr, lehre doch mich," sung by baritone Matthias Goerne. With his expressive voice and the control of a master of German art song, Mr. Goerne brought drama and mystery to Brahms' text. His involvement with the music being played was total, and he could even be seen mouthing words along with the chorus in moments where he is not required to sing.  He brought the same commitment to his two interpolations in the sixth movement, spinning lyric lines before giving way to the answering roar of the chorus and orchestra.

The fifth movement is the most controversial of this work, as it was added by Brahms to expand and embellish his original musical vision. Here, the soprano solo was sung by Ying Fang, the fast-rising Juilliard product who is having a spring of guaranteed career advancement. (She will sing Servilia in the Met's upcoming revival of La clemenza di Tito.) Ms. Fang offered up a soaring vocal line, carrying the text up to the heavens with a voice that has thickened, strengthened and matured.

Burnished brass and a soaring vocal line opened the optimistic finale, with Mr. van Zweden layering in sweet strings. The line was take up by the basses and tenors as the conductor was careful to preserve the antiphonal arrangement of the sections. The course of this movement worked upward, with the choristers following the orchestra on a steep climb toward the heavens. Descending string and woodwinds moved underneath the waves of choral sound, with the choristers delivering each line with the utmost clarity and intent. The work ended with one last great surge of singing, a prayer uplifted and that final, exquisite woodwind chorale.

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