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Ein Deutsches Requiem, (Op. 45), Johannes Brahms

Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus

Symphony Hall, Boston

Sept. 26, 2008

As with many things, this too started with Beethoven. It must have been a draining performance for both musicians and audience: the first three movements of the Missa Solemnis (Op. 123) and 9th Symphony (Op. 125) premiered all in one night on May 7th, 1824. These have both become monumental works that have revolutionized their genres. The Ninth Symphony is the more famous of the two because it was the first (or, at the very least, the most major) symphony to incorporate both choral and orchestral music into a symphony.

The Missa seems to have been shafted, potentially because of its religious connotations, but to do so is to miss its point completely: the notable part of the Missa Solemnis is that it was composed for a secular audience. Although Catholic in form, text and musical language, Beethoven’s piece is humanistic in its meaning and motive, occupying a strange duality between the concert hall and the church.

Johannes Brahms was certainly aware of his sources and influences (moments of the first movement might as well have been written by Beethoven himself), and it’s this fine interpolation between sacred and secular that Brahms toes in his monumental Deutsches Requiem (Op. 45) nearly forty years later in 1865. But what is central to Brahms’s placement in musical development is that he not only understands the historic context of his work, but in some fashion manages to augment the grand dialogue: Brahms’s work is grander in scale than Beethoven’s, further-reaching and more daring in the breaking tradition. It is more successful for precisely these reasons.

Maybe it’s best not to read too much into Brahms’s motives. Some sources say that the piece was written for the first suicide attempt of Brahms’s friend and mentor: the composer Robert Schumann. Others suggest it was written in response to his mother’s death, while still others say that it (like most of Brahms’s early opus) stems from early sketches of his first symphony. The truth probably lies in some complex convolution of all of these.

Regardless the motive, it is clear Brahms’s work is not religious. Certainly, the texts are taken from Luther’s translation of the Bible, the three-note theme of the entire piece is based off the Lutheran Chorale Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten (F, associated with comfort, A, with hope for reconciliation with a lost loved one, and B-flat, with loneliness — do, mi, fa) and the title of the piece is associated with the traditional Catholic mass for the dead. But there is much that is not patently religious about Brahms’s Deutsches Requiem; in fact, much of it is insistently secular: never does Brahms invoke the text of the traditional Catholic mass, never does he remind us of the apocalypse, the rapture and most importantly, never once is Christ mentioned throughout the entirety of the mass. This is a piece written for people, using the German language of the people instead of an elevated and academic Latin, associated, yet distinctly separate from religious influence. It is significant, therefore, that Brahms entitles his piece “Ein Deutsches Requiem” — ”A German Requiem”.

Levine’s performance on September 26th, 2008 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by John Oliver, made some interesting decisions about this performance. The TFC delivered a remarkably crisp performance that really highlighted the Brahms’s intricate choral writing; particularly notable was the final C major fugue in the sixth movement. Traditionally a musically dense moment in the piece, Oliver’s preparation of the TFC clarified and provided a clear motivation behind Brahms’s daedalian counterpoint. Overall, however, Levine’s performance provided a unique interpretation of the Requiem; tempos took some time to become settled (a more lively tempo in the first movement lolled into senescence in the second movement) but were used effectively to highlight moments in the text.

Of particular note, of course, was the fifth movement, “Ich habt nun in Traurigkeit” (“And ye now therefore have sorrows”), a stunning conversation between soprano solo (here, Christine Schaefer) and choir. While Levine expressed much of the despondent text of the soloist in a faster, recit-like tempo, a more stately tempo in the choral responses reflected their uplifting text. The complicated balance of soloist and choir, however, was not as successful with baritone Michael Volle. Although providing a lively performance in the third and sixth movements of the piece, Volle’s performance did not take the choir into consideration: high notes were uncomfortably punched and phrasing often did not reflect the musical line that Levine had in mind for the choral imitation. Although producing a thrilling performance, Volle’s solo work seemed disjoint from the choral and orchestral background.

Minutiae aside, however, Friday night’s performance was successful by standards that are not necessarily quantifiable. Perhaps it’s glib to say, but it’s worth saying either way: Brahms’s work is sad, more incredibly and profoundly sad than anything I can describe here. The Requiem is plagued with manic episodes: terrifying shifts between depression and ecstatic joy, between comfort and pain. Every moment of hope returns to its realization of sorrow: beautiful melodies echo their course through the choral and orchestral parts, augmenting and diminishing until they are barely recognizable; melodic lines fragment and devolve into bitter weeping — almost as if the composer himself became too overwhelmed in his grief to be able to finish the thought. And shouldn’t this be the thesis of a humanistic work on realizing death? Shouldn’t sorrow be the ultimate unifier and comfort for all who mourn? This is why Brahms’s work is so viscerally moving, enough to transcend creed and creation: who doesn’t know what it is to have lost irrevocably?

It’s difficult to state in precise terms, but Levine’s performance on Friday night was successful on this criteria: it understood Brahms’s discourse and was able to convey the music’s powerful message of comfort through sorrow.