Last week, I attended the CSO performance of Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem, with music director designate Riccardo Muti conducting. The CSO dedicated its four performances of the Requiem to the CPS students that have lost their lives in the senseless violence of the previous months and to the families and friends they have left behind. This was a thoughtful gesture, although it would truly speak volumes if the orchestra donated a portion of the ticket sales to youth programs that keep teenagers productive after school.
The Requiem Mass contains some of the most beautiful texts in the Roman Catholic liturgy; Brahms, however, carefully chose his own biblical passages from the German Luther Bible to set to music. The title is often misinterpreted: the modifier “German” refers solely to the choice of language. Brahms wanted the Requiem to be universal in a personal way, as he wrote it (or more precisely, completed it) while grieving for the death of his mother in 1865. It is also likely a memorial to his mentor, Robert Schumann, who passed away in 1856. I’m not sure if this is accurate, but Brahms may have started the tradition of Requiems intended for the survivors of the deceased, in contrast to the fire/brimstone themes in those of Mozart and Verdi. From my own experience, it works – I sang the fourth movement for a classmate’s funeral in high school. The first lines of the Requiem are from Matthew 5:4:
Selig sind, die da Leid tragen, denn sie sollen getröstet werden.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Having recently repeatedly listened to Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, I am struck by how music composed with earnest emotion never fails to entrance, even though it may take different forms. Brahms uses his chosen passages effectively – the choir is at times plaintive, longing, rejoicing, and death-defying (literally). He expertly oscillates between soft and loud, building and pulling back with deftness. Notably, he accomplishes this not only in the framework of each movement (the second movement is a model), but within the structure of the entire Requiem itself. The first movement conveys the essence of loss, sudden rudderless-ness, and confusion in survivors that follows a recent death. The third and sixth movements wear their emotions more on their sleeves, with fugues bombarding the audience with gorgeous sounds. The fourth movement is mellifluous, the fifth relatively serene. The last movement concludes peacefully, like a final release from the pain of mourning. One could write a thesis on this piece, but I’d encourage you to just sit down and listen, preferably at a live performance.
It is unfair for me to give an objective review of the concert as my seat was in the last row of the upper balcony with a non-existent view of the stage; unfortunately, the CSO did not reserve student tickets for this performance. My attempt to save a couple of bucks was unwise. The sound balance was off: the choir was too soft, the percussion seemed muffled, the woodwinds sounded distant, and the horns were deprived of their capacity to rivet you in your seat. From what I could hear, the choir sang admirably, although the tenors were a little underpowered, as was Torontonian baritone Russell Braun. I don’t remember the soprano soloist, as I think my attention wandered during her solo movement. The strings were consistently strong, but the woodwinds seemed out of sync at some points. There was also one French horn whose entrances were noticeably weak.
Much has been made of the CSO landing Muti as principal conductor, luring him away from La Scala in Milan (where his tenure was not without controversy). Apparently, the New York Philharmonic was also courting him as a successor to Lorin Maazel. I’m not an expert on contemporary conductors and their styles, but I know how important a conductor is to shaping an ensemble’s sound and coaxing the best performance out of its players. I remember reading somewhere that American orchestras tend to play at faster tempi than their European counterparts. Not so for this performance. Although Muti never lost the shape or phrasing, the music dragged at times (especially during the second movement). Thankfully, the fugal passages did not suffer.
At the conclusion, the audience gave a long and resounding standing ovation. Muti gave a speech about the CSO being a world-class orchestra. Unfortunately, my $24 did not grant me auditory privilege to his words.