About us / Contact

The Classical Music Network

New York

Europe : Paris, Londn, Zurich, Geneva, Strasbourg, Bruxelles, Gent
America : New York, San Francisco, Montreal                       WORLD

Your email :



Where The Woodbine Twineth

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
01/05/2001 -  
Frank Martin: Sechs Monologe aus Jedermann
Johannes Brahms: A German Requiem

Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano)
Thomas Quasthoff (baritone)
New York Choral Artists
American Boychoir
New York Philharmonic
Kurt Masur (conductor)

In an open city like Hamburg, early nineteenth century life was rough and tumble. Brahms’ father, an itinerant horn and double bass player, had little resources to pamper a growing family. In the working class neighborhood where Johannes was raised there were few opportunities for a fledgling musical genius and, although the story may be apocryphal, the young lion, like Shostakovich 100 years later, may have earned some spending money by playing the piano in a house of ill repute (Brahms was certainly no stranger to this type of establishment in later life). Religion was simply not one of the elements of his youthful environment. But in early middle age thoughts of a consolatory nature were important to the delicate psyche of this warm-hearted man. Even before his mother passed on (inspiring the ethereal fifth movement), Brahms was engaged in constructing a requiem which would include the requisite comfort but not be in debt to tenets of organized worship. The title Ein Deutsches Requiem is key; there is no Latin liturgy to segregate a humble person from access to the mysteries of the universe. Like Bernstein’s Kaddish, this is a dialogue directly between one man and his God.

Of course, being fascinated with the music of the past, Brahms could hardly turn his back on the great Lutheran choral music of his antecedents. The German Requiem is filled with fugue (its downfall according to the Shavians and Wagnerians) and other devices of the High Baroque. The emphasis on the chorus throughout makes this more of a Volkoper, the baritone soloist used only as a contrasting element and a representation of the individual as an Everyman, speaking for one and all (the soprano solo in the adjunct fifth movement not part of the original conception). Fire and brimstone are not totally lacking in an atavistic performance of the second movement (witness the older von Karajan recording) but they are stripped of their Hadean connotations. All Sturm und Drang is of this earth; the dead will rest in peace and so may we the living.

This concert was the third in a trio of Brahms events surrounding the new millennium (Masur takes the orchestra to Spain next week with all four Brahms symphonies), and the underlying message has been the peaceful and gentle side of the master. Masur’s approach to this great choral work is exceedingly kind and loving, leaving all who have to good fortune to hear it feel a little better about their place in the universe. Never seeming to expound above a whisper, the performance emphasized the rocking quality of the work, engineered so painstakingly by the composer in variants of three quarter time. This is the Brahms of the Wiegenlied, the babe feeling secure in its swaddling. The overall feel of the evening was communal and the playing of the orchestra was serene throughout.

Thomas Quasthoff is certainly extraordinary in many ways, however, as a vocalist he is adequate at best. He seems dedicated to his art and spends much time on careful characterization, but his voice is really quite ordinary. This is the third time that I have heard him and I see no reason to let his physical misfortunes obfuscate the fact that he is little more than a talented member of the chorus, maybe deserving of an occasional solo in church, but hardly worthy of the laser beam of media attention which has illuminated his career in recent days. The baritone began the program with a yeomanlike rendition of the Martin, a piece which I must confess leaves me cold. Heidi Grant Murphy is less extraordinary and certainly did not soar above the orchestra as she should have done. The New York Choral Artists started out strong but flagged in several spots, the transition from Wo ist dein seig? to Herr, du bist wurdig jarringly sloppy and the highest female voices raggedly off pitch more often than was auditorily comfortable. The American Boychoir is a fine ensemble, but my recent experience of hearing the boys of the Thomanerchor with this same orchestra has left me expecting more of an angelic sound than was forthcoming last evening.

I believe that Maestro’s gentle conception would have been aided by some more contrast in the second and sixth movements, the potential for excitement not really exploited in this quiet reading. But the ultimate sense of consolation is what this music is all about and there was a suitable air of reflective holiness among the patrons who descended down the subway tunnel with me. Brahms’ decision to fashion his own text beyond the pale of standard religion allows the work to ultimately resound with true tidings of comfort and joy.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



Copyright ©ConcertoNet.com