Selig sind die Toten – What Schütz Taught Brahms

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Hei-Kyung Hong and James Levine with the BSO in Brahms' German Requiem. Photo Hilary Scott
Hei-Kyung Hong and James Levine with the BSO in Brahms' German Requiem. Photo Hilary Scott

Johannes Brahms: A German Requiem, Opus 45

Saturday, July 25, 200

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine, Conductor
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, Conductor
Hei-Kyung Hong, Soprano
Matthias Goerne, Baritone

Brahms, always a musical preservationist, revered the liturgical works of Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672), the greatest German Baroque composer before J. S. Bach. When Brahms penned his crepuscular Ein deutsches Requiem, much of his intention – musically and textually – was modeled after careful study of Schütz’s longest work, the Musikalische Exequien (Musical Exequies) of 1636. Both works are titled similarly (for Schütz’s Exequies is “in Form einer teutschen Begräbnis – Missa,” in the form of a German Burial Mass). The emphasis on “German” in the two works is significant.  Both eschew any standard Latin Liturgy, using composites of German biblical texts to create unique poetic meditations on death, while providing solace for those who remain in the wake of tragedy.  Both seek a subjective statement of grief and solace. Each work closes with a prayer from Revelations, Selig sind die Toten. . . , “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord.” Musically, Schütz’s unique word-inflected vocal lines, with fluid conjunctions of homophonic and polyphonic blocks, find their way into Brahms’s lush textures. Brahms reserves strict “Bachian” counterpoint only near the end in the climactic fugue, “Herr, du bist würdig.” Most of choral writing, with its attention to declamation, voice leading, and part spacing, clearly harkens back to the great seventeenth-century precursor.

What is it about the Brahms Requiem that continues to captivate and move us? It has become second only to Handel’s Messiah as the most popularly performed choral work by amateur ensembles. The hyperbolic requiem of Berlioz, conjuring the terrors of Judgment Day, while a Romantic marvel, offers little succor. The Brahms simply and graciously reflects on what is tangible about our mortality. In doing so, the pain, terror, and uncomprehending anger are channeled in a remarkably humanistic way.

Since the work does not require the virtuosity of, say, a Bach Mass, successful readings are not uncommon. A friend of mine once said he never heard a performance of the Brahms that wasn’t respectable. However, a transcendental performance marks a rare occasion. So much depends on the precise articulation of the chorus, the depth of feeling projected by the conductor, and the dramatic shaping of this near-eighty-minute work. Tonight, in the sultry humid air, we all felt as one: James Levine, the BSO, and the TFC gave an unforgettable reading of Brahms’s longest work. Nearly a minute transpired after the final harp flourish before the cascade of ovations. John Oliver’s meticulous preparation of the TFC was as evident tonight as it was two weeks ago in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Throughout, the words of the scriptures and psalms were illuminated by the ensemble of 145 singers with a perfect balance of warmth and precision. As the emotional canvas shifted from solace to spectral, to insuperable defiance, Levine maintained deliberate tempos that never vitiated the pace. Bass-baritone Matthias Goerne, an ever-intense presence on stage, gave a most visceral reading of “Lord, make me to know that there must be an end of me.”  Soprano Hei-Kyung Hong’s delivery of “Ye now have sorrow,” while a bit tentative at first, gathered focus and intensity in the cradle of the chorus accompaniment. Brahms uses a remarkably small ensemble to achieve his ends; Levine ensured that the contrabassoon, bass tuba, and drums had the desired coloristic effect. The climax at “Oh grave, where is thy victory,” a lead-up to the fugue, with its glistering and defiant four-measure fixation on an E-7thchord, was thrilling. In the solemn closing section, Levine dwelled on “Yea, saith the spirit,” in way that was full of wonderment and mitigation.

The performance tonight, by all rights ideal, brought back the memory of a few summers ago at Tanglewood, when Levine gave us an all too brief excerpt from the requiem, “How lovely are they tabernacles, O Lord of hosts.” The excerpt, like death itself, was unannounced and unscheduled – a tribute to the all too brief career of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

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