Monday, November 10, 2008

CONCERT REVIEW: Brahms Britten Program Filled With Meaning

November 8, 2008
By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Cincinnati Symphony music director Paavo Järvi has a flair for meaningful programming. This was demonstrated once again in the pairing of Brahms’ “A German Requiem” and Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem Nov. 7 at Music Hall. Joining Järvi and the CSO were the 130-voice May Festival Chorus and two superlative soloists, baritone Matthias Goerne and soprano Heidi Grant Murphy.
On a purely surface level, both works are called “Requiem” and fit the season of remembrance, the concert falling between Halloween/All Saints’ Day and Veterans’ Day. Both are personal, non-liturgical works written in response to loss, rather than settings of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. (Brahms had recently lost both his mother and his mentor Robert Schumann. Britten was mourning the death of both parents.) Both pieces make the case for universal peace and reconciliation.
In other respects, they differ markedly. Brahms’ hour-long Requiem (the longest piece he ever wrote) is a choral work, a setting of selected verses from the Bible. Britten’s 20-minute Sinfonia is a three-movement symphony, a purely instrumental work, with titles borrowed from the Requiem (“Lacrymosa,” “Dies Irae,” “Requiem aeternam”). Composed three-quarters of a century apart (1865 and 1940), the two compositions are separated by lots of history and personal experience.
History and personal experience account for the biggest difference between them. Brahms was revered and secure in his homeland. Britten was an expatriate from his native Britain, a pacifist seeking refuge from World War II. Besides expressing familial grief, his Sinfonia da Requiem is a powerful anti-war statement, one he would ratify later in his 1961 War Requiem (comparisons with Shostakovich and Prokofiev come to mind). Järvi, however, chose not to emphasize this aspect, perhaps to forge a closer kinship with the Brahms.
That said, the opening of "Lacrymosa” may have taken some audience members by surprise, with its timpani/bass drum hammer blows. One might have briefly registered Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” but this was succeeded by a funeral march. It was an affecting movement, with a drooping four-note theme that fell back on itself, a steady tread and a keening solo for alto saxophone (James Bunte). It has often been likened to Mahler.
The “Dies Irae” began with eerie, Morse-code like figures in the flutes, who with the rest of the winds and brasses, were called upon to utilize considerable flutter-tonguing throughout the movement. The strings took off in rapid perpetual motion, setting up a rat-a-tat-tat-like atmosphere that had a distinct military flavor. There was lots of percussion (including xylophone, snare drum and whip), plus repeated, descending figures passages and a shriek of E-flat clarinet early on. The effect was of an out-of-control machine. Still, it didn't quite reach the con fuoco level ("with fire") called for in the score. The concluding "Requiem aeternam" was thoroughly convincing, however, an eloquent plea for peace opening with a gentle flute melody-- almost a lullaby, darkened with the addition of bass flute. This grew more impassioned, almost lush and Ravelian, before dying away softly at the end.
Brahms' Requiem is not often heard on CSO concerts since the choral/orchestral literature has been effectively ceded to the May Festival. This is a pity since it is a long time from May to May, and there are only four May Festival concerts (plus an intimate choral program at the Cathedral Basilica in Covington, Kentucky). It was doubly rewarding then to see the pattern is broken -- the last CSO performance of Brahms' Requiem was in 1986 -- especially with Estonian born Järvi, who comes from a chorus-filled country rich in vocal tradition.
Järvi approached the Brahms with deep feeling and exquisite attention to detail. The opening “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” (“Blessed are they that have sorrow”) was gentle and touching, the amber-colored lower strings arrayed against the hushed voices of the chorus for an extraordinary sound. He took a moderate tempo in “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” (“For all flesh is as grass”), leaning gently on the timpani accents and letting timpanist Patrick Schleker prepare the climactic moments with genuine drama (you could feel vibrations from the organ where I was sitting in the balcony). The concluding “ewig Freude” (eternal joy”) surged through the ensemble to the final triumphant chord.

Goerne’s mahogany voice lent added import to the baritone’s cautionary “Herr, lehre doch mich dass ein Ende mit mir haben muss” (“Lord, let me know that I must have an end”). Järvi crafted a magnificent rendering of the closing fugue that signifies “righteous souls in the hand of God”over a long-held pedal note. Even the piccolo could be heard, and the sustained final chord filled every corner of Music Hall.
“How Lovely Are Thy Dwelling Places” (“Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen”) featured the chorus at its best, exuding grace and beauty. In a delectable instrumental detail, the horn's descending arpeggio leading into the repeat of the opening melody emerged clearly.

Murphy’s sweet, focused sound in the treacherously high-lying “Ihr habt nun Träurigkeit” (“You Now Have Sorrow”) recalled Kathleen Battle (who, incidentally, inaugurated her professional career in Brahms' Requiem led by CSO music director Thomas Schippers in 1972 in Spoleto, Italy). The chorus' tribute to a mother's love was soft-breathed and tender, and ensemble clarity was such that Murphy's voice segued perfectly into the clarinet's identical note at the end.
The Day of Judgment broke with controlled fury on the heels of Goerne’s “Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis” (“Behold I tell you a mystery”), while the chorus’ full-throated “Tod, Wo ist dein Stachel?” (“Death where is your sting?”) rang with triumph. The fugue that followed recalled the final choruses of Handel’s “Messiah," literally surging upward through the orchestra to another thrilling conclusion (miraculously, a flute line emerged clearly through the texture at one point).
The final movement, “Selig sind die Toten” ("Blessed are the Dead") capped the seven-movement work with a return of the opening music. The effect was achingly beautiful as the theme reached each new tonal plateau. Järvi sought gorgeous detail here also, as in the intimate, chorale-like statement by the brass choir and the men’s voices. The audience was perfectly still at the end , letting the silence continue for long seconds until Järvi slowly dropped his hands and the ovation began.
All in all, it was a performance that tugged at the heart and never let go.
Repeat is 8 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 8) at Music Hall.

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