Dohnányi, soloists and Philharmonic deliver a shining Brahms Requiem
For all its enduring popularity, Ein deutsches Requiem is a decidedly odd piece in its composer’s trajectory. It came relatively early in the career of Johannes Brahms, a full fifteen years before the completion of his Symphony No. 1.
In it, we hear the fresh, youthful Brahms of the early chamber works exploring music on the grand scale that he later mastered. And unlike many other pieces of its genre, it is unaccountably bright, barely ever switching out of major mode and focusing more on comfort and the promise of resurrection than on tears and hellfire. At just a little over an hour, the German Requiem seems on its face almost too short to command an entire program; yet on Thursday evening it received a performance of uncommon depth from the assembled forces of the New York Philharmonic and New York Choral Artists.
The writing leans heavily on the chorus, relying on assembled voices more than on the orchestra to create power and even texture. The singers of New York Choral Artists were more than a match for the task, showing a cool tenderness as they first entered, but summoning massive force throughout the piece thereafter. Their ensemble was impeccable, and their sound rich, particularly the clear, ringing tenors.
Two exceptional soloists are on hand for this slate of performances. On Thursday there was a hardness to Camilla Tilling’s sound that might not play so well in an operatic setting, but here gave her a laser-like focus that beamed above the orchestra and chorus. Her tone is consistent, and made an excellent contrast with the tender sweetness of the orchestral writing accompanying her solo, in particular the brief but lovely cello obbligato by principal Carter Brey.
No one was more invested in the performance than baritone Matthias Goerne, who sang along (or at least mouthed the lyrics) with the chorus intently even when he wasn’t called for. He is without question one of our most brilliant artists, and it was a privilege to hear him in this repertoire.
Goerne has a voice tailor-made for lieder and oratorios, perfectly smooth, rich in texture, dark in color, but surprisingly light in weight. His vocal production seems almost effortless, and yet there is a passionate intensity in his singing, achieved through specific phrasing that pays close attention to text. There was an urgency to his treatment of both the music and the poetry, nowhere more so than in his emotional account of his second solo, “Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis.”
Christoph von Dohnányi, an elder statesman among conductors, demonstrated why he is considered one of today’s great Brahms interpreters, leading an exquisite performance. Under his baton, the light orchestration sounded bright and crisp, almost Mozartean, in the orchestra’s support of the singers. A versatile conductor, Dohnányi showed brilliant dynamic range, whether working with instruments or voices, turning nuanced phrases and changing levels at the turn of a hair in “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen,” and crafting energetic, lithe fugues.
There is a slight danger in the German Requiem of allowing the unceasing beauty of the piece to lull an interpretation into complacent, one-note pleasantness; Dohnányi had no such problem. His reading was beautifully paced and carefully structured, reflecting an alertness to the symmetry of the piece: as overwhelming power gave way to an otherworldly calm in the closing bars, moving full-circle from “Selig sind die Toten” (“blessed are the dead”) back to “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” (“blessed are they that mourn”).
Ein deutsches Requiem will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at David Geffen Hall. nyphil.org