Orchestra of St Luke’s/Xian Zhang at Carnegie Hall – Brahms’s Begräbnisgesang & Ein deutsches Requiem

Begräbnisgesang, Op.13
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45

Erin Morley (soprano) & Andrè Schuen (baritone)

La Chapelle de Québec
Ensemble Altera

Orchestra of St. Luke’s
Xian Zhang

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 9 May, 2024
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

The Orchestra of St. Luke’s wound up its 2023-2024 season on Carnegie Hall’s mainstage with a program featuring two choral masterpieces by Brahms including this Hall’s premiere of Begräbnisgesang (Burial Song) scored for SATB choir and twelve wind instruments (oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trombones) and timpani. Hopeful as well as tragic, it emanates archaism – evoking instrumental writing reminiscent of J.S. Bach’s cantatas, and using a 16th-century hymn, Michael Weiße’s ‘Nun lasst uns den Leib begraben’ (Now let us bury the body) as the text. Stepping in for Bernard Labadie, who withdrew due to recent illness, Xian Zhang – a frequent guest conductor with the OSL – led an inspired, superbly paced account, building inexorably toward the mid-work climax, with the dramatic singing of the sopranos making an especially strong impact.

Composed nearly a decade later, the German Requiem crowned the program. Completed in 1868, its catalyst was the death of Brahms’s mother. Instead of following the Latin Mass for the Dead, the piece employs a text culled from Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible. Without being overtly Christian, the words express deeply felt loss but also envision resurrection and a joyful afterlife. The combined choirs of La Chapelle de Québec and Ensemble Altera were very favorable to the balance of sound against the orchestra. The choristers’ clear diction and wide dynamic range, even in the more muted moments, allowed for extraordinarily eloquent phrasing. The highlight of was the second movement, ‘Un alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras’ (For all flesh is as grass), when the full power of the combined orchestra and chorus was first revealed. In the third, ‘Herr, lehre doch mich’ (Lord, teach me yet), Andrè Schuen sang with palpable conviction, revealing an authoritative, handsomely contoured baritone matching the expressive qualities in the choral singing. In the central soprano solo, ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ (You now have sorrow), Erin Morley’s subtle phrasings conveyed uncommon compassion as she informed every note with profound feeling. The emotionally charged line, ‘Tod, wo ist dein Stachel’ (Death, where is thy sting), intoned by the chorus in the penultimate movement, served well as the work’s dramatic climax.

The somber nature of the text and music might prompt some conductors to dirge-like tempos, but Zhang’s vital and superbly paced rendition managed to steer clear of this. She provided a healthy dose of momentum while allowing for slower, affectionately shaped phrases to emerge. This was a totally satisfying interpretation that finally brought a wonderful sense of closure and healing.

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