New York Philharmonic Brahms Cycle/Lorin Maazel – 6

Variations on the St Anthony Chorale, Op.56a [Variations on a Theme by Haydn]
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45

Celena Shafer (soprano)
Matthias Goerne (baritone)

New York Choral Artists

New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 5 June, 2007
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

This performance concluded the New York Philharmonic’s “Brahms the Romantic” festival.

The title of Brahms’s Op.56a, ascribing the work’s theme to Haydn, is almost certainly a misnomer, as the manuscript from which Brahms had copied out the ‘Chorale St Antoni’ theme was almost certainly composed by someone else (although by whom is not clear). By any name, however, Maazel and the Philharmonic gave the piece an excellent and enjoyable reading. The St Anthony theme was comfortably harmonised in its initial statement by a wind chorale, but it took on considerably more bite in the first two Variations. Geniality reigned in the lyrical third and fourth Variations in which the winds and horns were prominent. The next two Variations are both marked Vivace, with the agile, piccolo-topped melodic line of the fifth one seemingly parodied by the plodding horns of the sixth. The warm feeling of repose that characterised the seventh gave way to the brooding eighth and then the finale, a passacaglia rich in orchestral color and thematic variation. The majestic restatement of the St Anthony theme and a brief coda capped off a delightful performance.

There does not seem to be any particular ulterior programmatic motive in Maazel’s choice of “Ein deutsches Requiem” (A German Requiem) to conclude the Philharmonic’s Brahms Festival. This was, after all, a relatively early work (Brahms completed it when he was in his early thirties.) that was instrumental in establishing the composer’s fame. Maazel may simply have felt – quite appropriately – that its scale and depth of feeling made it appropriate for this occasion.

In this performance, Maazel evoked the full gamut of emotions that Brahms packed into this deeply emotional work, drawing uniformly outstanding playing from the orchestra. Maazel may be a bit less inclined than usual to allow tempos to deviate when he is working with a chorus, but the New York Choral Artists performed at such a high level of proficiency that the singers could no doubt have followed wherever he may have chosen to lead them. The chorus was superb at both the pianissimo and fortissimo ends of the dynamic spectrum, singing with precision, accuracy of pitch and clarity of diction. English translations of the German texts were provided as supertitles, which eliminated the distraction of rustling paper in the audience.

At the outset of the first section, ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen’ (Blessed Are they that Mourn), the chorus’s pianissimo entrance was spellbinding, establishing at once the reverential feeling that underlies the entire work. Choral and deep orchestral colours (the scoring here excludes violins) blended beautifully, with lyrical oboe solos and powerful horn motifs interwoven with changing vocal combinations and dynamic variation from the singers. The section ended softly with arpeggios on the harps (the Philharmonic uses two, although the score calls for only one). In the ensuing section, ‘Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie gras (For All Flesh Is as Grass), the chorus rose to the occasion to match forces with the orchestra’s powerful brass, and delicately sang a plea for mankind to be patient, to the gentle accompaniment of winds, strings and harps. The fugal passages of this section were quite thrilling, with the sopranos soaring high as if to place a crown on the music.

The vocal soloists, Matthias Goerne and Celena Shafer, were also outstanding. Goerne, for whom Brahms provided much the greater solo part, projected an exceptional quality of tone that resounded through the hall without being overshadowed by the orchestra. He imparted a depth of feeling to the words that he sang, and his demeanour even when he was not singing demonstrated the intensity of his engagement in the Requiem’s message of consolation. Shafer sang her solos with a lovely soprano voice that comfortably held its own.

In this work, the role of the vocal soloists is really secondary to that of the chorus, and when Goerne had completed his last solo, the chorus took centre stage the rest of the way, singing texts from the Book of Revelation. First came a powerful chorus declaring God’s worthiness to receive glory, honour and power, and then a more contemplative passage, ‘Selig sind die toten’ (Blessed Are the Dead), portraying death as a rest from life’s labors, and ending softly to the gentle accompaniment of harps, winds and strings.

The “Brahms the Romantic” Festival broke no new ground in its repertory or performance (apart from including in the first two programmes the rarely-heard Serenades). Neither was its characterisation of Brahms as a “Romantic” anything new. Perhaps what the festival may have demonstrated most vividly was “Maazel the Romantic”, as he out-romanticised Brahms himself through added emphasis on the very techniques by which the composer had distinguished his music from the preceding classical era. In the final analysis, whether or not successful as a themed festival, these concerts brought to the Philharmonic’s audiences some highly creditable performances of works that stand as monuments in the symphonic repertory.

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