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Something New Under the Sun

New York
Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium
03/02/2020 -  
Johannes Brahms: A German Requiem, Op. 45 (critical edition by Michael Musgrave, Michael Struck, and others; US Premiere)
Susanna Phillips (Soprano), Takaoki Onishi (Baritone)
Oratorio Society of New York, Orchestra of the Society, Kent Tritle (Conductor)

K. Tritle (© Eduardo Patino)

“Kent Tritle conducts soloists Susanna Phillips and Takaoki Onishi with the 200-voice Oratorio Society of New York and orchestra in the U.S. premiere of the New Critical Edition of Brahms’ A German Requiem. Michael Musgrave and Michael Struck led an international team of scholars to restore Brahms’...Requiem to his original intentions, letting the work shine with new light.”
Oratorio Society Press Material

I am not at all a religious person, but, as luck would have it, the first piece of music that I studied in great detail was this one. I have heard multiple performances over the years, including ones in English and even the fourth movement sung on the television mystery show “Matlock”. As a child, I read many differing accounts of whether or not the fifth movement was composed before, during or after the composer’s mother passed. Ultimately this is irrelevant – clearly Brahms would come to idolize her memory soon enough.

If one were listening for somewhat radical changes, they were simply not there. There were indeed tinkerings with the mutes in the violas but they were hardly noticeable. Instead we were treated to (or, in spots, exposed to) a version sometimes profound but also somewhat unsatisfactory.

To enumerate: there were sections that simply fell flat in their dramatic impact. The crescendo in the phrase “und die Blume abgefallen” was by no means dramatic enough, female long-held notes tended to sharp in movements three and four and the serenity of the normally jewel-like fourth movement was stated in much too loud of a fashion, as if the text were simply irrelevant.

As to the soloists, Takaoki Onishi was the standout performer of the evening, presenting his two movements with great care and immense power. My only quibble was his lack of an “r roll” on the word “geschrieben” in the sixth movement. Although this is, of course, a matter of personal taste, not a function of an accurate or disloyal version of the Brahms original, the effect was missed and the drama consequently undercut.

Susanna Phillips was a major disappointment. She had a bad habit of swallowing her phrases before fruition and her style hovered somewhere between powerful and sweet. As a mother, she was a bust. This movement was, of course, added by Brahms after the original performance. Hd he heard this particular soloist, he might have had second thoughts. On the instrumental side, the orchestra was quite good and the leadership acceptable if not profound.

By the strangest of coincidences, I went home in the same car as one of the singers. She mentioned to me that none of them was paid, that this exhausting process was simply a labor of love. This fact changed my opinion and restored my faith in artistic integrity and personal fulfilment. As a result, I concluded the experience with an aura of good feelings. Even Brahms would have been satisfied with this conclusion.

Fred Kirshnit



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