Mirga makes the most of morose Brahms

The latest Slipped Disc review of the CBSO100 season:

BRAHMS GERMAN REQUIEM

CBSO and Chorus at Symphony Hall *****

It was a clever idea to precede Brahms’ Requiem with Mozart’s C minor Wind Serenade for, like the Brahms, this piece is a masterful synthesis of ‘the old style’ with the new. Scored for an ensemble traditionally employed for light entertainment, this carefully crafted piece, cast in Mozart’s favourite key for intense dramatic works, and bristling with contrapuntal ingenuity is defiantly dark in its character, and practically a symphony for wind octet. The performance was a delight. The CBSO wind section played standing, allowing us to savour each individual’s contribution, whilst enjoying the felicities of the ensemble.

Mozart’s formal symmetries were echoed in the mighty construction of Brahms Requiem. The main impression of the evening was the absolute command that Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla had of the large forces involved, the certainty with which it progressed, and the clarity with which it was delivered. The physical disposition of the Chorus into four blocks aided our appreciation of the choral complexities, as we could see as well as hear each entry in the counterpoint and every turn in the harmony.

The work has seven slow movements, which means in some performances, that it lacks drama. This was emphatically not the case here.

One of the most thrilling sounds to be heard in Symphony Hall is the CBSO chorus (180 strong) singing quietly with their characteristic blend of tone and control, and here as the deep darkness of the first movement unfolded, aided by beautifully balanced pianissimo passages in the lower strings.

The relentless tread of “All flesh is as grass” had an alert suppleness that belied its measured tempo and its fortissimo passages stunned with its concentrated power. The jubilant fugue at the end of the movement was steady, but urgently driven; indeed all of the works’ fugues were distinguished in their rhythmic vitality, perfect intonation and character.

The soprano has only one movement in which she sings and Camilla Tilling gave us a sumptuously sung performance, beautifully phrased, with many exquisitely floated moments. Baritone Florian Boesch brought all his lieder singing experience to bear on colouring and expounding the text, with bell-like clarity and a Wagnerian ringing tone.

The chorus was magnificent throughout the performance in the splendour of its sound and unanimity of attack. The apocalyptic vision of the sixth movement in which they play the role of souls awaiting resurrection was spine-tingling, but although the full blooded moments inspired awe, it was the quiet moments that I took away from the evening as the final movement brought the work to a tranquil conclusion and the music that set the opening words “Blessed are those who mourn” returned, this time to the words “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.”

Brahms was an intensely private man, and we will never know exactly what his religious beliefs were, but whether you hear it as a religious or a humanist work, this was a profoundly life-affirming concert.

John Gough

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  • Was it sung in English? I know these sections as ‘Selig sind die da Leid tragen’ and ‘Denn alles Fleisch ist wie Gras’.

  • Not sure how anyone could ever describe Florian Boesch as possessing a ‘Wagnerian ringing tone’, which makes me doubt the rest of the review…

  • I have always had affection for the Brahms, with its “jubilant fugue”, but now Maestro Blogger has pronounced it “morose” (gloomy, annoyed, unhappy, silent), I shall immediately stop listening to it. These revelatory analyses are invaluable to me, you know. Let us hope that review writer Gough also learns from them.

  • I was there, and I agree. Especially about “Und alles Fleisch….”
    I also think that Mirga G-T is a much better conductor now that she has stopped jumping up and down and flailing her arms around. Last night, she was totally in control.

  • Beautiful review of apparently a beautiful performance.

    Indeed this work is difficult to perform – it needs energy and contrasts to prevent it from sagging under the weight of its masses.

    Brahms was a religious man in the sense Beethoven was: a faith not particularly defined by organised religion (combined with regular church attendance), but by a spiritual disposition. He strongly identified with a secularized and cultural brand of Lutheranism.

    But that changed after someone brought a copy of Schopenhauer’s famous book ‘Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung’, which undermined Brahms’ spiritual confidence, and which will have contributed to a sombre outlook upon the world and the human condition. There is the story of Dvorak who told Josef Suk about a conversation with Brahms, that he (B) said that he had ‘read too much Schopenhauer’ and therefore no longer could straightforwardly believe in religious ideas, which affected Dvorak quite much.

    It is not widely known that Brahms was an avid reader of philosophy and literature, he was a kind of intellectual, but never let that filter into his public persona, because he always tried to avoid to fuel the polemics around his and Wagner’s work.

  • I’ve never associated the adjective morose or the description “lacking drama” with Brahms Requiem. Perhaps that is because after several false starts with recordings by a wide variety of conductors like HvK, Robert Shaw, JEG, Ormandy et al I always come back to the 60/61 Klemperer/Philharmonia. From start to finish I can’t imagine a more compelling and passionate performance by another conductor, orchestra, soloists and chorus. My understanding is that there is a bootleg recording of Szell/CO but I’ve yet to find it.
    As for the issue of Brahms’s spiritual perspective, I thought that the choice of non-liturgical texts as evidence of his failure to embrace anything close to formal 19th-century belief. I can’t recall if it was Bruckner or Dvorak who expressed dismay at Brahms’s lack of faith. Last, the piece is clearly intended for the consolation of the bereaved rather than an affirmation of any life to come.

    • Indeed there is a such a recording. The performance was on April 24, 1969 and the soloists were Gundula Janowitz and Tom Krause. The two disc set also contains the world premiere of Frank Martin’s cello concerto, apparently from October 25, 1967. The label is Living Stage and the number LS1039.

    • Have you ever heard the 1950s Celibidache recording? I think it is a revelation. For me it is the only recorded performance that makes plain Brahms’s conscious debt to Heinrich Schutz.

      Sergiu Celibidache’s October 28, 1957 Cologne concert performance, formerly on Myto CD; now perhaps available elsewhere. Hermann Prey and Agnes Giebel are the soloists. Boxy closed-in mono sound, but… a musical revelation. The organ part, especially.

      The Schutz work Brahms obviously had in mind was Schutz’ Musicalische Exequien, Op. 7/SWV 279, I: “Concert in Form einer teutschen Begrägnis-Messe.”

      Brahms was General Music Director of the Vienna Singing Academy. While he did not conduct every concert, he was in charge of the programming, and he did program Bach and Schutz on the same concert. Not the Exequien, but another Schutz work.

      jm

  • Yes, the performance as sung in German; I was there and Mr Gough’s comments are a fair reflection of the performance.

    It’s interesting to note that on Midlands Classical Music, the site for which this review was written, the headline is ‘Alert suppleness in Brahms Requiem. ‘The prejudicial headline that Norman has given to this review bears no relation to its content.

  • Not sure why the headline describes it as “morose” as the review does not and it certainly isn’t.

    Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla appears to be most fulfilled and in her element with Choral works.

  • A propos the tempo of ‘Den alles fleisch es ist wie grass,’ when I sang this with the Philharmonia Chorus and orchestra under James Levine he said in rehearsal that he would take this at an amazingly slow tempo. He said the press might go mad but we would be able to feel the grinding pulse beneath Brahms’s music.

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