Saturday, April 11, 2009

NSO - All-Brahms - 04/11/09

Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, op. 56a
Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 - Master Chorale Of Washington, Heidi Grant Murphy & John Relyea

Despite a scathing review of the previous night's performance in the Washington Post, I was determined to go and check out for myself Brahms' deutsches Requiem at the Kennedy Center, and I happily found myself sitting next to my equally dedicated friend Pat. Brahms was not a religious man, therefore, he had carefully picked out six universal rather than dogmatic texts from the Bible and decided that they should be sung in his native tongue instead of Latin, the traditional liturgical language. Eventually dedicated to his departed mentor Schumann and his mother, both of whom he was very close to, his Requiem has remained a deeply moving composition of enduring popularity. The added bonus of having legendary Kurt Masur conduct the National Symphony Orchestra was another incentive, and it did not take us long to find out that all the negative fuss was nothing more than just that.

The first piece of the evening was an innocuous but fun exercise, probably meant not to turn the whole concert into an overly brooding pensum. The eight variations of the title, which as it turns out may not have been written by Haydn after all, were attractive studies in various moods of the same theme and ended in an ingeniously recapitulating Finale.
While requiems by definition are not happy-go-lucky music, they do not have to be non-stop depression-inducing works either. Luckily for us, Brahms' Requiem turned out much more life-affirming than expected, and the main reason for that was the wonderfully versatile Master Chorale of Washington, who stayed busy in various combinations pretty much the whole time and handled this daunting marathon with brightly nuanced and powerful singing. While the first three movements evoked suffering and mourning, the other three were all about consolation and celestial bliss, and even the quintessential death-invoking liturgical aria Dies Irae quickly turned into a quietly uplifting ending. The two soloists had little to do, but did it well, especially bass-baritone John Releya whose deep voice masterfully filled the hall. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy has a melodious but thin voice, which was occasionally covered by the orchestra, but her singing was quite lovely when it managed to rise above the fray. Maestro Masur's hands did appear wobbly at times, but that did nor keep him from assuredly leading musicians and singers into a truly magnificent performance, very much appreciated by the full audience. So there.

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