Johannes Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem
Conductor: Philippe Jordan
Soprano: Louise Alder
Baritone: Gerald Finley
As Rome is steadily moving into holiday season, fancy light designs, countless Christmas trees, and the smell of roasted chestnuts are everywhere, which admittedly creates a nice atmosphere. On the other hand, the equally perky and pesky holiday music relentlessly playing in stores is making my errands even more vexing than usual, and I am not even a big shopper. But a girl’s gotta eat, so I have soldiered on, even if I have had to put up with a particularly upbeat version of Jingle Bells during the five (5) minutes I had to spend at my supermarket last week.
Mercifully, between Handel’s Messiah and other seasonal fare, the Parco della Musica had programmed a masterpiece that fills my heart with joy anytime of the year: My beloved Johannes Brahms’s stunning deutsches Requiem, featuring no less than my beloved Gerald Finley as one of the soloists, which naturally led me to think that there might be a God after all. Even better, that already fabulous gift was neatly supplemented with the Adagio from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 10. Thank you, thank you very much!
So on Sunday evening, after a gloriously sunny and crisp weekend, during which quality time in Villa Borghese included an ethereal harp version of Wham!’s Last Christmas by the lake, a laid-back saxophone take on My Way by the gallery, and the grating rackets coming from the seasonal amusement park Christmas World, I was more than ready for indoors live music in the comfy Sala Santa Cecilia of the Auditorium Parco della Musica Ennio Morricone at the even earlier than usual time of 6:00 PM. No complaints here.
Having grabbed my ticket during the Black Friday half-price sale, the choice of seats was limited, and I ended up in the fourth row of the orchestra section. Although it was by no means an optimal spot, it turned out to be not as bad as it sounds, except for the fact that I found myself surrounded by audience members exuding an insane range of colognes and perfumes that made me regret my usual perch. But then again, I eventually got to watch (and hear!) Gerald Finley superbly ply his art a few feet from me, and all was well in the world again.
After seeing the Visconti’s sumptuous Death in Venice, I immediately decided that the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 would be my favorite Mahler work ever. But then I heard the sublime first movement of his Symphony No. 10, which incidentally is the last composition he completed, and I had to switch my preference. Listening to the Adagio again as it was confidently conducted by Swiss guest maestro Philippe Jordan and magnificently performed by the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia last Sunday, I felt totally comforted in my choice.
Composed when Mahler was painfully aware that he had been betrayed by his wife and that he was terminally ill (a horrifying double whammy if there ever was one), the roughly 30-minute Adagio intensely expresses the profound sadness and utter despair that he must have felt in those final months. Masterly using chromatic dissonance for inner turmoil and transcendental beauty for his farewell to the world, Mahler came up with a musical statement that still resonates today, and on Sunday evening brought a welcome sense of contemplation to the madness of the holiday season.
while I thoroughly enjoyed Mahler’s Adagio, my main reason for being in the auditorium was to hear Brahms’ deutsches Requiem, one of my favorite pieces by possibly my favorite composer. Inspired by the German Luther Bible, the death of his mentor and friend Robert Schumann and then of his mother, and his own creative genius, Brahms wrote a Requiem that resolutely, and most unusually, focuses on humanity rather than on any kind of deity. In the end, thanks to the perfectionist composer’s deliberate choice and brilliant craftmanship, the emotionally gripping composition not only impressed his sophisticated peers, but was also understood and appreciated by Germans from all walks of life.
On Sunday evening, beside the sure musical values of the orchestra and the chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, as well as upcoming English soprano Louise Alder and established Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, the Italian and English translations of the German text were provided on a large screen for a more complete experience, and I found it very useful. That said, the experience would have been extremely satisfying regardless, the chorus in particular being consistently excellent in conveying the quiet sadness of mourning and its fierce resolve when defying death. Seriously, that ferociously dramatic sixth movement has to be one of the most exhilarating choral numbers for performers and listeners alike. In their smaller parts, Findley was as flawless as usual, and Alder was a truly wonderful discovery.
Not a work for the faint-hearted, Ein deutsches Requiem stretches over an eventful hour, which can become a problem for some (During the last movement, the first violin had to discreetly but firmly gesture a fidgety young boy in the first row to calm down already). But its bold message of hope was not lost to any of us, especially as the year is ending with more pain and suffering than our so-called civilized world should find acceptable. But then again, there is next year, and hope springs eternal.