Brahms German Requiem by Chamber Orchestra (2nd review)

God's favorite agnostic

Randall Scarlata: Let Brahms do the work.
Randall Scarlata: Let Brahms do the work.

Ignat Solzhenitsyn seems to feel a special affinity for the great 19th-Century German composers, but he's also deeply connected to the great Russian tradition of spiritual art that runs through composers like Shostakovich and writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and their modern descendants. You could hear that connection in his brief opening remarks before he led the Brahms Requiem, and you could feel it in the moving, darkly melodious cello passage that opened the performance.

The Chamber Orchestra's Requiem was a good example of Solzhenitsyn's ability to select performers from the music community's younger member. The Requiem is a work in which the chorus sings almost non-stop, and Solzhenitsyn made a good choice when he picked the Choral Arts Society for the event. This group is enjoying a revitalization under the direction of Matthew Glandorf, who prepared the chorus for the concert. Its singers also enjoyed the advantage that they had sung the Requiem just last year.

Like many composers, Brahms sometimes ignored practical considerations, such as the feelings of soloists who must sit in silence through 65 minutes of a 75-minute piece. The solo roles in the Requiem aren't very long, but they're pivotal. Baritone Randal Scarlata once again showed that he knows how to assume the right style for a role, with a dignified presentation that let Brahms's music do the work without unnecessary embellishments from the performer.

A voice that's still maturing

Susanna Phillips is a newcomer to the Philadelphia scene, but she lived up to the expectations evoked by a resume that includes four major vocal prizes. Her voice is still maturing, but it's clear and true throughout its range, with no strain or over-emphasis in the high notes, and she demonstrated a good grasp of the emotional overtones of a part that includes the lines, "I will comfort you, as one whom his mother comforteth."

The Chamber Orchestra sounded at its best, too. But you can't write about a performance of the Requiem without going beyond a simple evaluation of the performers and discussing the great questions of human mortality inherent in its text. Bernard Jacobson addressed those matters in his astute, informative program notes, and Solzhenitsyn touched on them, briefly but effectively, in his preliminary remarks.

The entire text of the Requiem, with the possible exception of the last section, rests on the promise of personal resurrection. Can a work like that mean anything to someone who doesn't believe in the literal truth of a life after death?

There are two answers to this question. One is the music itself. Great works of art can communicate feelings that make philosophic and religious ideas seem simpleminded. The shape and complexity of Brahms's music connects you with the timeless reality that underlies our days.

An agnostic's beliefs

Solzhenitsyn said something similar in his opening remarks, when he quoted the passage from St. Paul in Section 6 that says we seek "a continuing city." A masterpiece like the Requiem, Solzhenitsyn argued, is itself a continuing city— one that has moved audiences in three centuries.

For the last words of the Requiem, in addition, Brahms chose a text from Revelations that modifies the emphasis on the after-life with its vision of the dead who "rest from their labors, and their works do follow them." Brahms himself was apparently an agnostic, so that passage may have been the closest expression of his own beliefs.

The fact that Brahms chose the texts himself heightens the tension between his own attitudes and the words proclaimed by the chorus and the soloists. A work like the Requiem needn't dispel the mysteries that lie at the heart of our existence. It merely has to put us in touch with them. By that all-important standard, this was one of the most successful performances of the Requiem I've encountered.

To read another review by Dan Coren, click here.

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