Muti’s Verdian take on Brahms’ Requiem high on drama, low on consolation

Fri Oct 23, 2009 at 1:39 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms

It doesn’t possess the operatic passions of Verdi nor the Classical poise and balance of Mozart.

Yet of all the great requiems, for many, that of Brahms cuts closest to what the texts are all about. Yes, there is fear of death and existential dread over the unknown, as voiced here by the baritone soloist.

But Brahms’ German Requiem is largely a forgiving, consolatory view, offering a glimpse of serenity and spiritual peace after death, and providing comfort to the loved ones of the departed. Though some of the material was written before his mother’s passing, in many ways the Requiem is Brahms’ working out of his own grief, made explicit in the late addition of the fifth movement for soprano (“I will comfort you, as one whom a mother comforts”). The success of Ein deutsches requiem put the 34-year-old composer on the map, and, in many ways, it has never been surpassed in its wedding of the personal and universal, and a range that encompasses heaven-storming choruses as well as hushed intimacy.

For the second and final week of his 2009-2010 season appearances, Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, soloists and CSO Chorus in Brahms’ German Requiem Thursday night at Orchestra Hall.

As was apparent in last week’s program of Mozart and Bruckner, Muti’s ear for transparency is extraordinary. The hand of the CSO’s music director designate was immediately apparent in the refined textures and meticulous balancing of the vast forces.

Even in the most spectacularly scored moments, with large orchestra, chorus and organ in full cry, every timbre and strand emerged with precision and clarity. Under Muti, the CSO is shedding its corporate weight and sonic ballast for a sound less German and much more Viennese—lighter, more elegant and light-footed, brass toned down, strings to the fore.

 And while this was still a firmly controlled performance—perhaps too much so in the choral fugue of the third movement—-it was also a decidedly Italian view. Often the style looked ahead to the operatic passions of Verdi’s Requiem, as with the throbbing timpani leading cumulative intensity to the  chorus Denn alles Fleisch. Nor was there any lack of stentorian fervor in the dramatic outbursts, notably in the penultimate movement.

 Yet for all its impressive control and tautly coiled energy, at times Muti’s approach seemed to miss the spiritual and consolatory elements of the music. The easing choral balm of the fourth movement was rather cool in expression, and the most affecting passages seemed emotionally reserved, this Brahms more the view of a sympathetic intellectual humanist than a warm-blooded believer.

The performance also had a rather uneven pair of soloists. Russell Braun is a wonderful artist, but had a mixed outing opening night. His baritone proved a bit light in the vocal loafers for the third movement’s dark view of earthly life, lacking weight and patriarchal authority, though Braun brought greater dramatic expression to the sixth movement.

Soprano Elin Rombo was the weak link in Thursday’s performance. Perhaps suffering from nerves, her shaky, unevenly projected soprano made the radiant Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit a less than ethereal moment.

No complaints about the magnificent singing of Duain Wolfe’s Chicago Symphony Chorus.  Few ensembles this large can deliver the kind of hushed corporate pianissimos as the CSO Chorus in the Selig Sind opening bars. Also notable was the chorus’s delicate backing of the solo soprano and the vernal delicacy of their singing in the fourth movement. Under Wolfe’s direction, the massed voices brought thrilling power to the dramatic moments and fugal  passages.

 The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.; 312-294-3000

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Muti’s Verdian take on Brahms’ Requiem high on drama, low on consolation”

  1. Posted Oct 25, 2009 at 11:48 am by fran and herbert lippitz

    On Saturday evening, the soprano singing Brahm’s
    Requiem was a clear, concise, lyrically sensitive
    performance, unlike what you heard on Thurs.
    My husband and I sat next to you for the Faust Production, enjoyed meeting you and further,
    agreed with your review!

  2. Posted Oct 28, 2009 at 1:07 pm by Ezra Linke

    Please stop assigning the glory of that Chorus’s sound and preparation to the director. He is hardly responsible for how well the Chorus sings when Muti is on the podium.

    Being in the audience for choral performances in the last ten years has been a trial until now. I have decided to only attend when Muti is on the podium. The difference is unmistakable.

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