Tag Archives: Brahms Requiem

Critical Reviews of the Brahms

Well, this was another lesson in “don’t put too much stock in the reviewers.”  Our Thursday performance was perhaps one of the better performances I’ve been privileged to be a part of.  Our Friday matinee was also outstanding, though I admit I felt more emotionally connected to the Thursday performance… Fridays was more mechanical, and a little tougher for the chorus to keep the pitch up at the end, no doubt a little vocally weary after singing this twice in 16 hours.

But you wouldn’t believe that based on some of the reviews.

Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe had this to say about the chorus:

And of course the hard-working Tanglewood Festival Chorus was in the spotlight for the entire evening. There were a few moments of wayward pitch, but overall these singers achieved a beautifully warm blend and sang from memory with a musical responsiveness that would be gratifying for any conductor. Certainly, as the response made clear, it was gratifying in the hall.

We initially bristled at the characterization of “a few moments of wayward pitch,” but a few chorus members in the audience dutifully confirmed just that: one or two moments of wavering.  Hardly significant, though, and by all accounts did not detract from the full enjoyment of the piece.  If anything, it’s disappointing what the reviewer did NOT mention: the slavish attention to detail with regard to diction and dynamics that produced a clarity of sound rarely heard in any Brahms Requiem performance.

The next Boston-area review, by David Wright of Boston Classical Review, was just a darn shame.  It practically devolved into insulting us.  He *really* didn’t like the performance, calling it “dull” and “a lugubrious miasma.”  And while many of us considered the soprano good but not great,  he held her up as the bright spot…

…on a night characterized by plodding tempos, lax rhythms, congealed orchestral textures, and choral singing that sounded harsh in forte and fuzzy in the softer dynamics.

Mr. Wright also claimed Dohnányi’s performance lacked in Brahmsian energy and warmth, said the Wie lieblich had no gentle sway to it, and claimed the emotional contrasts of the second movement “were grayed out in Dohnányi’s slack, one-tone-fits-all rendering.”  He further writes:

In fact, the entire performance was a cautionary study in how important a firm rhythmic foundation is, no matter what the music’s mood.  Without it, phrases lost shape and direction, ensemble playing grew shaky, crescendos lacked emotional conviction and became just a dialing-up of sound, the chorus’s tone and diction sagged—and, for the listener, minutes began to seem like hours.

To this, most of us say, “Huh?”  It’s hard to understand whether Mr. Wright was in the same Hall as the rest of us.  I could go through and refute each one of his points (except maybe the sagging tone), as each one of them was countered by the specific praise we heard from sharper, more experienced ears than his: non-roster chorus members attending, native speakers who praised our diction, brass at the BSO, orchestra members, and John Oliver himself.  My guess is that he fell into the same issue that I mentioned at the end of a previous blog post: his favorite interpretation of the Brahms Requiem no doubt indulges in more upbeat tempi, more swells, and [hyper]emotional melodrama.  Yet I still can’t explain his characterization of congealed orchestral textures, fuzzy choral singing, and lack of a rhythmic foundation.  Maybe he sat behind a pole or something.  Shrug.

The last review published online was the most spot on, from my ears, and not just because he said nice things.  Joel Schwindt, of the Boston Musical Intelligencer, wrote:

The combined forces offered a sensitive, supple interpretation of the work’s varied textures and temperaments, and the chorus displayed a remarkable unity of concept in their rendition of the Biblical and secular texts. This high level of unification included an impressive rapport between conductor and chorus, conductor and orchestra, and even the less-frequently-found rapport between chorus and orchestra, all of which was well served by the chorus’s memorization of the work.

He said the soloists were the only disappointment of the evening–not because their performances were poor (“executed their parts skillfully and gracefully”) but because they didn’t adapt their light-hearted vocal style sufficiently to meet the gravitas of Brahms.  He cited their backgrounds: Müller-Brachmann came across as if doing a Schubert song-cycle, and Prohaska resembled her colortura opera roles.  I hadn’t thought of this when hearing them, but I’m convinced he’s correct.

He closes with a movement by movement analysis of the performance, complimenting our performance as an ensemble rather than as chorus + orchestra + conductor.  I’d call it all exceedingly accurate and have no real quibbles with his observations and criticisms:

Soloists aside, the ensemble communicated Brahms’s message of “comfort for the living, rather than the beloved departed” (to paraphrase the composer) in a very moving fashion. A small amount of reticence at the opening of the performance completely vanished by the return of the first movement’s opening music, a moment that what was perhaps the most sublime of the entire evening. If the recapitulation of the first movement was the most sublime, then the return of the opening text in the second movement (“Denn alles fleisch es ist wie Grass/Then all flesh is as the grass”) was certainly the most moving. The ensemble offered a very tender rendition of the simply textured fourth movement, and its promise of eternal blessing after death. The sixth movement had its high and low points: the chorus’s staccato articulation at the opening led to a loss of the “horizontal” qualities of the musical and textual line, though the fluidity and intensity of lines that followed created a very effective buildup to the Vivace of the triumphant, “Tod, wo ist dein Sieg?” (Death, where is your victory?) Dohnányi’s choice of tempo in the Vivace was very exhilarating, though it was generally too fast to allow the chorus effectively to articulate of the syntax of the text. All of these issues disappeared, however, in the group’s exuberant rendition of the movement’s closing fugue. The final movement, “Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herrn sterben” (Blessed are the dead, who die in the Lord), offered a touching close to the group’s stirring performance.

It’s telling that Mr. Schwindt’s byline gives his credentials as pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at Brandeis as well as having vocalist and conductor experience.  It shows in his writing and his analysis of the performance.

The Christoph von Dohnányi Brahms Requiem

Okay, okay… THAT was a rehearsal, too.  🙂

Singing yesterday with John was about seeing a familiar face.  Singing tonight was great, but it was hard work.  If yesterday was slipping into a favorite, comfortable pair of slippers, then today was breaking in a new pair of $700 loafers.  (Hat tip to Will for that one.  Also, I clearly don’t spend enough on my shoes.)

So what does the Brahms Requiem according to Maestro Dohnányi sound like?

For one thing, he embraces the concept that this piece is about “philosophy, not belief.”  The German Requiem is more secular in nature than others, given the way it eschews the Latin Mass in favor of vernacular passages from the Luther Bible.  It’s less about the afterlife and those who have died, and more about those of us here now who still live.  That happens to be one of the reasons I really enjoy this Requiem more than some of the others, but I’d never seen that philosophy transferred into the interpretation of the music before.  Christoph’s  overriding direction to us was to make it happy.  Blessed are we who mourn!  We should rejoice in the lives that were led, and embrace those of us still here.  Instead, our tendency has been to sing this like a funeral dirge, with a  lugubrious, dark tone.  Christoph wants none of that, and immediately set to work reversing our somber tone, reminding us that we’re comforting the mourners, reminding them of the good in life.

The other major difference is how particular Maestro is about… well, about everything, really.  The first 10 minutes of rehearsal had us all pretty worried, as Christoph’s correctional slogging, measure by measure, felt like a potential repeat of a long Saturday workout with Maestro Suzuki and the St. John Passion.  He let up a little bit as we settled in, but he still never accepted anything that interfered with the sound he wanted.  (He drilled us basses down to individual poorly tuned notes on one particularly offensive passage.)  I especially liked the way he would have us rehearse the fugues quietly.  Not only did this preserve our voices, it exposed us to flaws in our entrances, pronunciation, note values, and other automatic pilot details that disappear when you’re singing loudly.  It’s definitely a good technique to keep in mind.  (You know, should I ever conduct this piece myself.  Uh-huh.  Right.)

Nowhere was this attention to detail more noticeable than his direction on when dynamics begin and end.  We’ve admittedly gotten a bit lazy on starting and finishing crescendos, and so far we’ve just survived using our musical intelligence to shape the phrase.  But Christoph holds us to what’s printed.  That crescendo you’re making?  It doesn’t start until the third measure.  That decrescendo you didn’t make?  You’ve got to get back down to piano or else you won’t have a place to start the swell in the next two measures.  The whole rehearsal was peppered with corrections like that to what we thought we knew about the ebb and flow of the phrases.

The rest of the differences are really just interesting artistic decisions that zig where previously John zagged.  Like every encounter with great conductors, one walks away with a renewed sense of the textures of the piece, and a new appreciation for passages that might have been swept aside or sung on automatic pilot before. Asking the basses to back off so the altos can be the lead in quiet passages featuring the three lower voices.  Replacing bombastic swells with smarter phrasing that fits the character of the piece.  Emphasizing the counterpoints just as much as the subjects in the fugues.  Changing the basses’ entire fugue entrance from the marcato “Proud, Triumphant!!!”  (written in my score from previous years) to a more reserved, fully legato line that carries through the continuity of the (now much more pronounced) ewigkeit lead in.  Lots of little adjustments like that to alter the textures we’re used to and thereby bring out previously hidden melodies.

It’s… strange, to be tasting the chef’s concoction that has been plated before us.  But he’s a darn good chef, and the requiem he’s serving up tastes fantastic.  I think we all can’t wait to put it all together with the orchestra tomorrow and Wednesday.  Let’s just hope we can keep something in reserve for the actual performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

The John Oliver Brahms Requiem

Now, THAT was a rehearsal.

Our chorus had had two weeks of rehearsals with Martin, our rehearsal pianist, and a fine musician and composer on his own… but he’d be the first to admit that he’s not a choral conductor.  If there were questions about interpretation, about specific cutoffs, about rewrites that had been inserted in half the scores (and contradicted in the other half) over the many years of performances, all Martin really had the authority to say was “sing it as written” or “we’ll see what John and Christoph [von Dohnányi] say next week.  As always, those rehearsals were great for [re-]learning the notes and text and fine-tuning or catching up on memorization.  But they barely serve as making music.

Tonight we made music.  Tonight was almost a religious experience for me as we rehearsed down in the chorus room with John Oliver leading us: leaning into the chords and lines, responding to his baton and playing off of his familiar cues, creating a sound that felt fulfilling and rewarding, and making John’s interpretation of the piece come alive.  John even joked about it at one point in the second movement.  He remarked to the basses, “I see you’re familiar with the John Oliver version of this Requiem, because you didn’t do the diminuendo until the last syllable of abgefallen, which is how I like it.”  Oh, we stopped to fix things when they needed to be fixed.  The connectivity of the movements was interrupted by the necessity of mundane comments like “At rehearsal letter K, the baritones should double the tenors” or “What are the tenors singing in the second system”  or “Altos, take out the rest that’s marked and finish with the lower voices so that the subito piano… you know, the one the sopranos aren’t doing (laughter)… comes through.”  He even brought up a debate about whether the “hairpins” written into our scores were accurate, as recent editors were suggesting those swells should be over the entire measure.  It didn’t matter.  For me, pausing for those adjustments did not diminish the feeling of accomplishment just from being a part of that rehearsal.

But what made this non-performance such a special experience for me?  Well, having sung this piece with John once at MIT in the early 90’s, and once out at Tanglewood almost a decade later, I’ve internalized “John’s version of the piece” as my own.  It makes it distracting to listen to any other version, recorded or live, because a tempo will be different, a dynamic won’t be there, a certain character or tone won’t be present… fundamental decisions by the conductor and the choir can create discordances within my memory of “how it’s supposed to go.”  Like hearing a different comedian tell a joke you know — still the same joke, but the retelling of the story, the timing of the punchline, can make the joke unrecognizable or even not funny.

On the drive down this evening, I told my wife, “I will bet you dollars to donuts that John stops us to tell us three things tonight, because we’re not doing them yet.”  Those three things:

  1. He will make a pained look on his face and say “shh shh shh” in the recapitulation of the 4th movement, finally stopping us to say that this second occurrence of the Wie lieblich theme must be “absolutely pianissimo.”
  2. He will make us go back and repeat a very important agogic accent at the end of the Die loben dich immerdar section in the transition to the subito piano because we’re plowing through it without any separation.
  3. He will tell us that the opening of the sixth movement needs to sound like we’re exhausted, like we’re trudging home from work after a long day, carrying a huge burden.

Bingo.  John said all of these things, almost verbatim.  My wife shot me a smile across the room after each one of them.  To be fair, John painted a slightly different picture on the third point–he did use the word “trudging” but he described it as “several overweight pallbearers marching along carrying a coffin with another overweight man inside.”  It’s an amusing mental image, but it’s an important point to convey — that part of the piece is supposed to drive home the human side of the requiem equation, the “this is our place on Earth and we’re pushing through our days here hoping that our work before we die makes it a better place.”

There were many other familiar dynamics, phrases that John motioned to bring out from the texture, ritardandos in all the places I’m expecting them, gestures to tenors and altos on certain sections that are quintessential moments for him… and remind me that yes, THIS is the version of the Brahms Requiem I enjoy.  This rehearsal was my one and only performance of it this year.

Because that’s the shame of it all, really.  Starting tomorrow, at the piano rehearsal, Maestro Dohnányi will begin shaping us to his version of the Brahms Requiem.  I’m sure it will be glorious… full of subtlety and majesty, musically intelligent, and conveying his retelling of perhaps Brahms’ greatest work.  John will reconvene with us in the rehearsal room, and remind us of what Christoph wanted here, and advise us to watch his stentando on this cadence and an accelerando going into a fugue that we hadn’t seen before… and, as always, we will shape ourselves to deliver on a new vision.  We will embody the decisions that Christoph asks for, and I will love singing every minute of it.

But it won’t be my favorite version.

On to the Brahms Requiem

Next up in this season’s choral program for me is the Brahms Requiem.   This is getting off the long flight and seeing loved ones waiting at the gate.  This is finding out the final exam has been cancelled.  This is remembering that tomorrow is Christmas morning.  Why?  Because a) I love this piece, and b) I already have it memorized!

Unfortunately, a  quick review has reminded me that I only *think* I have it memorized.  There are a few places where I mumble the German, and a few time values I may have learned incorrectly and never made the adjustment.  Still, for a great piece such as this one, where not only do I know it but I’ve sung it for John Oliver twice before — once at MIT, and once out at Tanglewood — getting reacquainted with this masterpiece has been a wholesome pleasure. 

Last summer when we sang the three short Brahms pieces (Schicksaslied, Nänie, and the Alto Rhapsody), I found myself reminded of the German Requiem because of the cadences, the interplay between orchestra and chorus, the word painting, and just the general sumptuousness of Brahms’s choral writing.   As an added bonus, my wife is also on the same roster, so we’ll get to do this journey together, rather than one of us cheering from the sidelines.  (Her journey will be a little longer, however, as she recently switched back from alto to soprano and isn’t as familiar with the piece as I am.)

First rehearsal is Monday…!