Amid wild gossip — much of it unwarrantedly negative — over the recent appointment of Jaap van Zweden to take over the podium of the New York Philharmonic after maestro Alan Gilbert departs next year, the ensemble showed no signs of despair in this brilliant rendition of Brahms’s Requiem. Formally titled A German Requiem, it adapts essential psalms and critical evangelical verses in an unusually light toned version of the Roman Catholic mass for the dead. Brahms wrote the work at an oddly early time in his career – completing it eight years before his First Symphony. It premiered when he just thirty-five, hardly an age to contemplate mortality (Mozart, of course, died at exactly that age while writing his — though this was a pure coincidence). But circumstances forced the urgency of the piece, as Brahms was devastated by the recent death of his mother and seems to have continued his mourning for his mentor Robert Schumann, who had died a number of years earlier. Brahms was notoriously secretive about his exact motives and artistic choices, but it reasonable to guess that he could take a more heavenly view of death in celebrating the lives of loved ones. The German Requiem rarely descends into the somber minors of other composers’ works in the genre and luxuriates in the simplicity of the selected Biblical verses highlighted in beaming major keys.
A steady performance of the German Requiem rises and falls on the choral contribution, and the Philharmonic’s brilliant playing found fine accompaniment in the New York Choral Artists under their director Joseph Flummerfelt. Rarely a note seemed missed by this superb ensemble. The brief but moving solo parts, for soprano and baritone, were entrusted to two of the finest Lieder singers performing today. Camilla Tilling’s shimmering tones enlivened her parts with a silvery distinction. It was Matthias Goerne’s stupendous approach to the baritone’s lines, however, that delivered on Wagner’s maxim that the height of German art rests in strength, simplicity, and soulfulness. Recalling the very best singing of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, he rendered his verses in a calm, velvety tone that gave the piece as much meaning as I have ever found in it.
The whole performance came together majestically under the accomplished baton of the stately German conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, who will turn eighty-seven this year. We can hope for many, many returns.
-Paul du Quenoy