JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833 – 1897): Ein deutsches Requiem, Opus 45 — Julia Sitkovetsky (soprano), Andrew Garland (baritone); Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale and Orchestra; Dmitry Sitkovetsky, conductor [Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Saturday, 18 February 2023]
Had Sigmund Freud sought a candidate for in-depth analysis of the effects on an artistic psyche of close attachments to both a mother and a maternal surrogate, he could have found no more ideal a candidate than Johannes Brahms. Born in Hamburg in 1833, Brahms learned music from his father, a renowned horn virtuoso, but was tutored in other disciplines by his mother, a woman two decades her husband’s senior and long acquainted with hardship. The lore of the young Brahms having demonstrated the fruits of his early piano studies with Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel and Eduard Marxsen in dens of vice allegedly frequented by his father has limited historical corroboration at best, but all that is known of the composer’s life substantiates that his childhood engendered unconventional relationships with both of his parents, who grew estranged as the effects of their age disparity increased. Profoundly saddened by his mother’s death in February 1865, Brahms began composing what would become his most expansive work, the gestation of which may have extended back almost a decade to the mental deterioration and death of his idol Robert Schumann. Setting not the traditional Latin Missa pro defunctis but his own selection of verses from Martin Luther’s German Bible, Brahms crafted a Requiem in which prayer for comfort for the living supplanted entreaties for the departed soul’s repose.
Brahms’s surviving correspondence provides few indications of the extent to which conceptualization of his Opus 45 Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der heiligen Schrift pre-dated his mother’s passing. Three of the work’s movements, originally planned to number six in total, being completed by the start of May 1865 suggests that the work had been devised in some form prior to 1865, a supposition that gains credence from Brahms’s use of music composed during the time of Schumann’s final decline in the Requiem’s second movement. Valuable as cognizance of a work’s genesis can be, the significance of the catalysts that spurred composition of the Requiem is eclipsed by the magnitude of the work itself. Omitting references to messianic redemption, a core component of Christian liturgy, Brahms accentuated the complexities of grieving and carrying on, utilizing passages from the biblical books of Matthew, Psalms, 1 Peter, James, Isaiah, the Wisdom of Solomon, John, Ecclesiastes, Hebrews, 1 Corinthians, and Revelation to yield a deeply affecting text that largely avoids denominational dogma. As in many of his works, Brahms’s innovations in Ein deutsches Requiem are partnered by near-academic adherence to prescribed musical structures, most notably the precepts of counterpoint inherited from Johann Sebastian Bach.
A vital aspect of Brahms’s genius was his uncanny ability to achieve novelty within the confines of tradition. The writing for both chorus and orchestra in the Requiem demonstrates the encyclopedic acquaintance with the music of Händel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann that permeates Brahms’s work, here allying expressive devices derived from Bach’s Passions with the intensity of emotion found in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. These unmistakable influences notwithstanding, the ingenuity of Brahms’s music complements the understated boldness of his textual choices, the voice that emerges most discernibly from the pages of Ein deutsches Requiem coming neither from composers of the past nor from any religious ideology but from Brahms himself—a voice seeking a path from the bleakness of grief to the comfort of hope.
Marking the 154th anniversary of the première of the final, seven-movement version of the work, first performed in Leipzig on 18 February 1869, with this performance of Ein deutsches Requiem in Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, the Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale continued a journey started in December 2021 with the choir’s inaugural presentation, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Under the direction of founding conductors Jonathan Emmons and James Keith, the choristers continue to refine their sound, tailoring the balances that they project to the music at hand and to the efforts of their Greensboro Symphony Orchestra colleagues. In this performance, GSO’s Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky led the combined choral and orchestral forces with unwavering concentration on the work’s intricate musical architecture, masterfully building to but avoiding over-accentuating climaxes. Even with pauses of several seconds separating the movements, thematic continuity was maintained throughout the performance. Sitkovetsky’s navigation of the score’s emotional currents often recalled Wolfgang Sawallisch’s conducting of the piece, the Greensboro performance exhibiting the profound but unsentimental breadth of expression heard in Sawallisch’s preserved traversals of the Requiem.
Fastidiously observing the Ziemlich langsam und mit Ausdruck marking of the Requiem’s opening movement, Sitkovetsky and the orchestra established a high standard of musicality from which the musicians’ playing never deviated. The choir’s hushed delivery of ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen’ movingly conveyed the meaning of the text and fostered an atmosphere of reverence and contemplation into which the work’s angry, anguished passages burst with tremendous force. Here and in the subsequent movement, (Langsam, marschmüssig), the absence of an organ in Tanger Center was particularly regrettable, as it also was in the Requiem’s two final movements, but Sitkovetsky’s shaping of orchestral textures provided the firm aural foundation needed by the chorus to articulate ‘Denn alles Fleisch ist wie Gras’ so stirringly. The theater’s acoustic, better suited to symphonic repertoire than to opera but ideal for neither, lessened the impact of the words in the choir’s singing of ‘Die Erlöseten des Herrn werden wieder kommen,’ but, owing to Sitkovetsky’s leadership and the choristers’ preparedness, musical potency was unimpeded.
In the third movement (Andante moderato), baritone soloist Andrew Garland intoned ‘Herr, lehre doch mich, daß ein Ende mit mir haben muß’ incisively and with shining vocal luster, his E and F at the top of the stave projected effortlessly but with dramatic purpose. Each of his words was matched with a vocal coloration that limned its meaning, and oft-neglected musical subtleties, one of the most intriguing of which is a brief reminiscence of a phrase in the Lied ‘Gute Nacht’ from Schubert’s Winterreise, were meticulously explored. In response to Garland’s superb diction, the chorus articulated ‘Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand und keine Qual rühret sie an’ with increased verbal clarity. The heightened interpretive acuity of their singing persisted in the fourth movement (Mässig bewegt), their singing of ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Herr Zebaoth!’ evincing the awe that permeates both music and text. Sitkovetsky’s sagacious adherence to Brahms’s stipulated dynamics provided compelling interplay of gravitas and catharsis, the music paralleling the manner in which grief evolves, relenting at times but returning with renewed severity.
Heard only in the work’s fifth movement (Langsam), completed in May 1868 as a reaction to a performance of the Requiem in which the aria ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ from Händel’s Messiah was inserted into the six-movement edition of the score, soprano soloist Julia Sitkovetsky sang ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ pensively, her vocalism disclosing little difficulty with the tessitura. When joined by the chorus, she shaded her timbre to shimmer above the cascades of sound. The choir voiced each line with deepening involvement, introducing an account of the Andante beginning of the sixth movement in which their singing of ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’ surged with earnestness. Garland lent each word of ‘Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis’ conviction, placing each tone with assurance. Sitkovetsky paced the transitions to Vivace and Allegro intelligently, escalating tension without jeopardizing contrapuntal precision.
The sustained forte F5 with which the sopranos launched the Requiem’s seventh movement (Feierlich) propelled the choir’s affecting singing of ‘Selig sind die Toten,’ and both chorus and orchestra followed Sitkovetsky’s guide in fashioning an exalted realization of Brahms’s concluding sequence of musical and emotional trials. The kinship of this music with Gustav Mahler’s Second and Eighth Symphonies was apparent, Sitkovetsky resolving this performance of the Requiem with disciplined zeal that illuminated in Brahms’s music the tide of hurt and healing that courses through Mahler’s scores. The flaws in this performance of Ein deutsches Requiem were minor and fleeting, never undermining the vision of the piece that Sitkovetsky endeavored to manifest.
Brahms’s faith in salvation was centered not in redemptive theology but in the restorative capacity of music, and that faith inhabits every page of Ein deutsches Requiem. Uplifted by the palpable dedication of chorus, orchestra, soloists, and conductor, faith in the enduring eloquence of Brahms’s music was the defining ethos of Greensboro Symphony’s poignant performance of the Requiem.