Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Johannes Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, BSO, Levine, Saturday, September 27, 2008, 8:00 PM

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Johannes Brahms in 1853
Johannes Brahms in 1853

Johannes Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem)

Saturday, September 27, 2008,  8:00 PM
Symphony Hall, Boston

Boston Symphony Orchestra,
James Levine, conductor

Christine Schäfer, soprano
Michael Volle, baritone
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
John Oliver, conductor

In 1865 Johannes Brahms set to work on his A German Requiem, following the death his mother, Christine Brahms, who died in February of that year. Formally, it is his most original work—later his genius found a secure place in traditional forms, above all the symphony. Before expanding on that, I should take Brahms’ example in remembering my own teachers, especially since one of them once had a principle which has some oblique relevance to A German Requiem, or at least to my own experience of it.

I am thinking of Rowland Sturges, with whom I had the privilege of studying piano during my undergraduate years. Because of my deficient motor skills, I owe Rowland more, as excellent a teacher as he was, for his litearary wisdom than his contribution to my pianism. A bit of chat always has its place in musical instruction, and, as I set myself to demonstrating my mastery of Dohnányi and Pischna, Rowland spoke of literature, thinking, most likely, that he might humanize these tedious exercises by referring to my own field of study, of which he had his own impressive knowledge and inspiring taste. Rowland believed that every author really produced only one great book, and he took great pleasure in talking about his preferences. Forster’s Howard’s End is hardly a surprise, but Henry James’ first version of Roderick Hudson is perhaps more challenging. Roderick Hudson was all Rowland Sturges needed from James. Although, rather because I tend in the opposite, inculsive direction, in believing that an artist’s oeuvre is consistent as a whole, I felt enlightened by his remarks and constantly bring them to mind, as I pursue my own researches, remembering how much I learned from Rowland’s remarks.

I don’t believe that Rowland held composers to the same standard. In The Boston Globe I read the following in Bryan Marquard’s vivid and touching obituary, a remembrance by Rowland’s daughter, Alice:

“Years ago, Mr. Sturges took a break from practicing one day and went into the kitchen where his daughter, then about 12, was making lunch.

‘And he piped up, “Alice, you know what makes life worth living? Brahms,” ’ she recalled. ‘He loved Brahms above all else.’

The other day, she was driving when a piece by Brahms, Intermezzo in A from Opus 118, came on the radio.

‘And that was my father,’ she said. ‘He would play that incessantly. It was so familiar I felt like he was in the car with me.’”

Rowland demonstrated the Intermezzo in his teaching as well, and I can remember him playing it on the better of his twin Steinways, the rebuilt one from the 1920’s.

I’ll now hypothetically abjure my own universal love of all of Brahms’ music and suggest that in a pinch I might accept the German Requiem as Brahms’ Roderick Hudson, the desert island work—although how could one give up the fourth symphony, or the third, or the first piano concerto, or the viola sonatas, or the quartets, quintets, or sextets, or a host of songs, above all the Four Last Songs! I still treasure the Fischer-Dieskau recording given me by a friend many years ago. But that’s enough of reminiscences, memorials, and all that. Brahms was rooted in life, and in his German Requiem he offered thoughts and consolations regarding death from a human point of view—the meditations of a living Everyman conversant with the Bible as a humanistic document. There are hardly more than a few wisps of the other world in it, if any.

In his customary introductory message, James Levine made his deep affection for A German Requiem clear, eloquently, in fact, but he pointed out that he has conducted to work in its entirety only three times. His 1983 performance with the Chicago Symphony resulted in a commercial recording. In this concert he gave a thoroughly up-to-date reading, which is worlds away from his ideas of twenty-five years ago, not to mention the expectations of his audience.[1] In the preface to his Cambridge Music Handbook on A German Requiem (Cambridge, 1996) Michael Musgrave observes how the work has benefitted from recent research and trends in performance practice: “Though long considered a major challenge to performers, the work quickly established itself in the repertory and has held a secure place ever since…Nonetheless, it came to be associated with a certain stolidity and worthiness. Only of recent years has there been a fresh realization of its individuality of text and structure, as well as its sheer beauty of sound and line, first with the investigation of historical and stylistic scholarship, and latterly with the attention of performers using the forces and playing styles of the period,” referring to the work of Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner, with their reduced or eliminated vibrato and the resulting transparency of texture. The great recording by Otto Klemperer, which has been highly regarded by critics and the public for many years, presaged the clarity of these historically informed performances, lending them a sort of traditional support. At the other end of the spectrum, the live performances by Wilhelm Furtwängler were not generally available until the 1970’s. They now occupy a central place in Musgrave’s account of the performance history of the German Requiem.

On Saturday evening it was evident that James Levine had profited from all these developments. In spite of the famous bloom of the Symphony Hall acoustics and the Boston Symphony strings’ ample vibrato, the textures were indeed very clean; Brahms’ inner voices and counterpoint could be properly heard, as well as an extensive palette of color. (The influence of Bach’s predecessors, above Heinrich Schütz, was clear enough.) Levine kept his tempi moving along, and his rhythms were alert and crisp, placing the German Requiem well within the realm of pastoral elegy rather than the ponderous churchiness of bad performances. Often it sounded as if Levine’s forces were smaller than they actually were, so impeccable was the execution by orchestra and chorus. The soloists, Christine Schäfer and Michael Volle, sang with deep commitment and close attention to the text Brahms painstakingly worked from Scripture. While Volle brought precise diction and a powerful, dark lower register to his part, soprano Christine Schäfer sang her single movement (a later addition to the score) with richly colored, full-voiced lyricism, recalling in style the great mezzos who have excelled at “geistliches Lied,” like Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus was, as always, magnificent. The orchestra showed meticulous preparation in its splendid playing. Levine’s relation to the music was unreservedly sympathetic. I could not take exception to any of his interpretive decisions, and his characteristic sense of flow and shaping were just right. This was a reading of both taste and passion—one of the truly unforgettable evenings at Symphony Hall.

Brahms’ title, A German Requiem, points to the specificity of his concept. He was anything but a devout believer, but his Protestant upbringing left him with a detailed knowledge of scripture, and that probably was a source of consolation for him, following the long decline and death of his beloved mother, and also seemed to be the inescapable foundation of a work of this sort which could be performed in public. Brahms’ carefully avoided any reference to the Resurrection or life after death. Brahms most definitely did not envision his Requiem as a liturgical work. This was not lost on Karl Reinthaler, Musikdirektor in Bremen, the organizer of its first performance at a geistliches Konzert on Good Friday in the Cathedral, who, failing to persuade Brahms to include a reference to the Resurrection in the second movement,[2] made sure to include what Brahms wilfully omitted in several numbers from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Handel’s Messiah, notably, “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” “Behold the Lamb of God” and the Hallalujah Chorus. (It speaks worlds about Brahms’ world that the second performance was given only a little over a fortnight later in a secular venue, the Bremen Union, with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and a Weber aria filling out the program.) All this is to say that the texts, as familiar as they are, are crucial, since Brahms approached them with a focus on the meaning and mood of individual phrases and words, as if they were poetry and not ritualized liturgical formulae. As Jan Swafford pointed out in his learned but informal introductory lecture, repetition is key in all the movements. Brahms used repeated key words to set the tone for each section, for example, the anaphorical “selig sind…” from the Beatitudes, although not repeated in Brahms’ selection, is repeated many times in its musical setting, as if the entire Biblical passage were being performed. The word, “trösten,” (= “to console”) often repeated throughout the entire work, in combination with its similar-sounding opposites, “Trauer” (= “mourning”) and “Traurigkeit,” (=”sadness”) is especially important, both in thematic and in aural contexts. James Levine, his soloists, and the chorus never lost sight of these considerations and their nuances.

After the silence Levine which maintained for some time after the final cadence, the audience applauded full-heartedly, especially for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and John Oliver. It seems as if Boston audiences can’t get enough of this extraordinary local asset. Truly, nothing about this important performance went unappreciated. Christine Schäfer herself seemed deeply moved at the end and responded to her warm applause with difficulty. This German Requiem went far beyond even the usual high standards we have come to expect from all concerned.

There was only one thing I could fault, and that is a minuscule detail, really an irrelevant distraction, probably not apparent to everyone. Michael Volle, following a contemporary trend among solo singers, wore a suit which vaguely suggested attire of the later nineteenth century, if not quite the late 1860’s. In fact it made him look like a preacher—which I should like to believe was unintentional. In A German Requiem Brahms’ voice is his own, that of an secular, educated person of Protestant background, not that of a person invested with ecclesiastical authority.

[1] In this recording Levine was immersed in his Viennese phase. Throughout the performance he encouraged the dark Chicago strings and the chorus to use a great deal of vibrato and portamento, but, even in some very slow tempi, his phrases have the same crisp definition we hear in the present performance. Although one can’t deny that, in 1983, Levine was exploring a traditional performance style—the flexible and expressive central European style associated with Furtwängler which was coming back into favor then, after years of Toscaninolatry in American orchestras—the performance is not really compromised or limited by it. This is still a great reading and highly recommended.

[2]For an account of the collegial exchange between Reinthaler and Brahms, see Jan Swafford, Johannes Brahms, New York 1997, pp. 316ff. In Reinthaler’s plea the voice of a sincere and learned believer is in the foreground against background of the music director’s concern about propriety, public feeling, and of course the wish for a successful concert, both for his own interests and that of the young composer, whose reputation still had far to go.

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