Pittsburgh, PA – According to Dr. Richard E. Rodda’s program notes, Brahms began composing his “German Requiem” in the form of a symphony, inspired by the encouragement of his most profound mentor, Robert Schumann, who died prematurely in 1856. The work did not evolve into its final state until after the subsequent death of the composer’s mother in 1865, for whom he specifically composed the magnificent soprano solo, now embedded within the fifth movement. Not unlike Verdi’s grand requiem, which was begun as a collaborative project to commemorate Rossini’s death in 1868, and is often hailed as Verdi’s “greatest opera,” Brahms’ German Requiem is a singular symphonic achievement, part opera, part liturgy and perhaps somewhat more creative in scope due to Brahms’ use of non-traditional texts in his native German, rather than the conventional Roman Catholic prescription in Latin. Dr. Rodda speculates that this may have been an intentional tip of the hat to Schumann, who himself had intended to write a requiem in German rather than Latin, but did not live to see the project realized.
Because the Requiem is considered a bit too short to fill a traditional concert, Friday’s concert, featuring the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Mendelssohn Choir, opened with an abridged version of Antonin Dvorak’s Biblical Songs; a rather delightful set of psalms for baritone and orchestra sung in Czech. Renowned baritone Thomas Hampson took the stage with Maestro Manfred Honeck to guide us through Dvorak’s charming musical psalter. While Mr. Hampson sung capably and engagingly, I found myself pining for a greater richness and texture in his voice to compliment Dvorak’s luscious use of the orchestra. I was particularly impressed with the fourth movement, a setting of the first four lines of Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd), which opens with a lone horn call, echoed by a marvelous a cappella descant that is again reflected by a solo flute before melting into delicate pastoral colors in the orchestra. As I have come to expect, Maestro Honeck pulled illuminating lines from the orchestra with seemingly minimal effort, though I did detect some deviation in the ensemble in several spots, leading to a somewhat dubiously placid finale before the intermission.
The Brahms opened with shimmering resolve but quickly yielded to some significant balance issues. Whether it was my particular vantage from the orchestra section, stage left, or not, I found it very difficult to separate the lines within the chorus and in most cases the men were lost behind Brahms’ frequent use of unwavering pedal tones, reminiscent of the pipe organ that is sometimes included in performance. Much of this, I believe, was due to the apparent lack of diction in the choir, which was peppered with imprecise placement of final consonants (or at times, none at all) and a seeming lack of confidence in “overdoing” the diction; an unavoidable necessity when singing German, which is an economical language that utilizes no silent vowels or consonants. I was fond of Honeck’s slowly paced interpretation, in particular his transitions into Brahms’ architectural fugues such as Die Erlöseten des Herrn, in the second movement. That said, the choir’s uncertainty as to the rhythmic precision of the diction seemed to draw the energy out and make for a cloudy performance; energy only occasionally punctuated by the emergence of the brass. One particularly frustrating moment for me was the presentation of the text “ja der Geist spricht,” in which the final ‘t’ of ‘Geist’ was elided into the ‘s’ of ‘spricht’ producing a phrase like “ja der Geiss-spricht.” Unfortunately, ‘Geiss’ is German for ‘nanny-goat.’
The nitpicking of diction aside, I was continually impressed by how engaged the choir seemed to be by Maestro Honeck and could read on all of their faces the intense desire to perform well for him, which, over all, they did succeed in doing. A great choral conductor and mentor of mine once told me that a conductor must lead as though he has a string tied to each person on the stage, pulling them into his vision. Honeck consistently seems to make that connection with his ensembles, and in particular the choir, whose collective attention and effort seemed to remain on him with magnetic intensity.
Mr. Hampson’s tessitura seemed much better suited to the Brahms, which he sang with drama and subtle power enhanced only by the strong chemistry between Maestro Honeck and himself (the two have known one another for some time). Beyond any doubt, however, the most brilliant star of the evening was soprano Chen Reiss, whose performance occupied the smallest portion of the concert but outweighed the remainder with a sweeping crystalline tone, beaming face and expressive kindness that must have reached Brahms himself and his dear mother, in memory of whom her solo had been written. Ms. Reiss is no stranger to the concert hall or opera stage, boasting an impressive resume including appearances in major houses throughout Italy, Germany, Austria, France and the United States. If Friday’s performance was any indication, her prosperity is certainly no wonder and she deserves and shall hold our complete and undivided attention for some time to come.
In all, Friday’s performance fell short of exciting and seemed plagued with small imperfections that allowed for too much steam to escape. Ms. Reiss maintained the zenith of the concert with an energy I could find nowhere else in the hall, aside from Honeck’s electric connection with the choir.
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