Last night, the New York Philharmonic presented the Brahms Requiem. Jaap van Zweden was on the podium, and the soloists were Ying Fang and Matthias Goerne. How bad could it have been? Not bad. And yet . . .
The first movement could have been deeper and richer. Less tentative, less careful. More convinced. And more accurate, too. There were smudges in the orchestra, which is rare for a Van Zweden presentation. From the chorus, there could have been a warmer sound.
This chorus was the Concert Chorale of New York. They were perfectly correct, mind you, and the Requiem as a whole was correct, basically. But—this is the Brahms Requiem. Correctness doesn’t cut it.
Van Zweden isn’t going to lay an egg on you—he’s too professional for that. But the German Requiem contains greater power than we heard.
The second movement should have been darker, in my estimation. More brooding, more forbidding, more stirring. Also, it was a little unmoving. I don’t mean in emotion (although you could say that, too). I mean in pace. The music was a little stagnant (very rare for Van Zweden). When the chorus sings “But the word of the Lord endureth for ever,” there ought to be coursing joy. There wasn’t.
Let me say again that this was not bad. No, no. Van Zweden isn’t going to lay an egg on you—he’s too professional for that. But the German Requiem contains greater power than we heard.
Indulge me in a memory, please. At the Salzburg Festival one year, I did a public interview of Gerald Finley, the Canadian baritone. The night before, as I recall, he had sung a German Requiem. I said to him, “The baritone has to sit there for almost a half-hour and then deliver a perfect, glowing A, on ‘Herr.’ How do you do it?” (I was wondering whether there were any tricks, such as singing along with the chorus beforehand, discreetly.) Finley shrugged and said, “It’s what I do.” In other words, I’m a professional. It’s my job.
I loved that answer.
Matthias Goerne does his job, too. Last night, he showed his beautiful voice, his beautiful German, and his typical involvement in the music (which is near total).
A word about posture, or stage comportment. Both soloists in the German Requiem do a lot of sitting while others sing and play. Goerne was interesting to watch, though not distracting. He often looked at the conductor (feeling every beat and measure). Then he crossed his arms, looking out at the audience, thinking. Then he folded his hands, grinning. Ying Fang, the soprano, showed amazing discipline. She sat impassive, looking straight ahead, her stare unreadable. This never wavered, before or after she sang.
How did she sing? Ah, what purity, what musicality. This is what Ying Fang delivers time after time, in the repertory suited to her (“Exsultate jubilate,” Mahler 4, etc.). (I sometimes think of this as the Heidi Grant Murphy repertoire.) Also, Ying Fang has the special ingredient common to Diana Damrau, Joyce DiDonato, and HGM, for that matter: the capacity to endear.
Ying Fang has the special ingredient common to Diana Damrau, Joyce DiDonato, and Heidi Grant Murphy: the capacity to endear.
Enough sweetness, let me get back to knocking the performance in general. In the fourth movement, the chorus sings, “My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God.” I didn’t hear that. No longing, no fainting, no crying, or rather, too little of it. All Requiem long, I wanted more: more feeling, more uplift, more sweep, more consolation, more Brahms.
Frankly, a bit more accuracy, too (as I’ve said before). At various points throughout the Requiem, there was malcoordination, or balky coordination. But the worst problem was that the Requiem was, overall, dry-eyed. At least to me. It was a little cold. Better than bathetic, sure, but still not the Brahms Requiem.
I bet performances will get better, as the Philharmonic repeats the Requiem, today and tomorrow.
Let me leave you with some footnotes—four of them. (1) Do you believe that the seventh movement of the Requiem—“Selig sind die Toten”—is necessary and desirable? I love it, don’t get me wrong. But, when I was a kid, it seemed to me that the Requiem ought to end with the sixth. I have never quite shaken that feeling.
(2) What’s your favorite recording of the Requiem? I don’t have a favorite, I suppose, but there is one I like none better than—and it comes from the New York Philharmonic. Bruno Walter, with George London and Irmgard Seefried, in 1954 (here).
(3) In your opinion, what is the best of Brahms? What are the masterworks on which his reputation depends? Well, there are many, but I will provide a brief list: the Requiem; the B-major trio; the piano pieces of Op. 118 and Op. 119; both piano concertos; take your pick of the symphonies; the Clarinet Quintet; and a song, “Von ewiger Liebe.”
(4) An old, old question: How do you program the Brahms Requiem? I mean, what do you put with it? Anything? The piece is about an hour and ten minutes to perform. Is that a full evening? Is the audience ripped off, without something else? There are a couple of stories I tell about this. Instead of retelling them here, I think I’ll direct you to another blogpost, which I scribbled a few years ago: here.
And do listen to that Walter recording (with George and Irmgard). Even through the crackles and other technological imperfections, it has the Brahmsian glow.