July 25, 2009 performance reviewed by Dave Conlin Read.
We stepped away from the careening carousel that life in the Berkshires can become by late July to attend Brahms’ A German Requiem, on words from Holy Scripture, performed in the Koussevitsky Music Shed at Tanglewood by the Boston Symphony Orchestra with James Levine conducting, Hei-Kyung Hong, soprano, Matthias Goerne, baritone, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, conductor.
Our need for a little inner quiet was met fully by this performance of the piece that served dual purposes for Brahms, addressing the deaths of his mother, Christiane, and of his mentor and spiritual father, Robert Schumann.
We arrived early enough to read Jan Swafford’s program notes, as well as the scriptural passages to be sung, drawn from 11 Biblical sources, including Matthew, Peter, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Corinthians, and Revelations. This is not a liturgical work, not a Mass; Brahms assembled the text from the Protestant Bible but omitted Christian dogma in favor of espousing a humanist view.
The opening and closing movements are similarly quiet and sombre, “Selig(Blessed)” the first and last word to be sung; at first, it is the living being blessed, or comforted, and then, finally, the dead, “…that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them.”
Brahms’ triumph, and tonight’s beautiful performance meant that the listener didn’t need the text in order to experience a full range of emotion, nor to be swept into a meditative state from time to time. For our part, we came away feeling that, as insignificant we may indeed be in the scheme of life, nonetheless there is magnificence to be experienced (or, to the experience) along the way, if we will.
The Truth that life is best lived in community was reenforced by the brilliance of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which was first among equals in this performance; for all the artistry of tonight’s soloists, it seems that the solo parts could have been sung by ordinary choristers, as stand-ins for every man and every woman.
Their finest moment came with the verse from 1 Corinthians, where they loosed a tremendous, defiant sound, repeating (in German, of course) “O Death, where is they sting? O Death, where is thy victory?” Although the sound couldn’t be more different, we recognized the passage as being the likely source for the classic Bluegrass song “O, Death,” an a capella version of which earned a Grammy award in 2002 for Dr. Ralph Stanley.