Fischer, Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus deliver a sturdy Brahms Requiem

Sat Jul 18, 2015 at 1:45 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Thierry Fischer conducted the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in Brahms' "Ein deutsches Requiem" Friday night at the Priztker Pavilion. Photo: Ryan Handley
Thierry Fischer conducted the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus in Brahms’ “Ein deutsches Requiem” Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. Photo: Ryan Handley

Thierry Fischer brings the heat in more ways than one.

When the Swiss conductor made his successful Grant Park Music Festival debut in 2013, it was on one of the hottest days of a brutally humid summer.

For Fischer’s lakefront festival program Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion the weather gods brandished their heat-and-humidity scepter once again. The night wasn’t nearly as oppressive as two years ago yet, oddly, the results were more mixed.

The evening led off with Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night), the composer’s Late Romantic apotheosis before his stylistic U-turn and 12-tone system.

Schoenberg’s 30-minute tone poem for string orchestra can be a challenge to keep on track yet Fischer and the Grant Park musicians did a superb job. The surging ebb and flow was judged with fine skill by the conductor, Fischer drawing a widely terraced range of dynamics and conveying the lovers’ passion as well as the glowing contentment at the coda.

The Grant Park string players showed their mettle, maintaining accurate intonation even on this fetid evening. The dark, burnished cellos were especially lovely and concertmaster Jeremy Black’s sweet-toned solos brought out the atmospheric fantasy of the score.

The main work on the program was Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), the work that gave the composer his first great success. Brahms was a skeptic yet appreciated the expressive power of the Lutheran religion. Originally planned to mark the death of his great friend and advocate Robert Schumann, Brahms worked on the score for years, unsatisfied with it. The death of his beloved mother was the spur to complete it, the composer belatedly adding the fifth movement for soprano as a tribute to her.

There were inspired moments in Friday’s performance. The orchestra played with characteristic polish and dedication and the Grant Park Chorus, well prepared by Christopher Bell, sang with commitment, often resplendent tone, and mostly admirable intonation throughout Brahms’ varied 75-minute canvas.

Yet ultimately this was a sturdy Brahms Requiem rather than an inspirational one. Fischer leaned toward slowish tempos, which sometimes were well sustained, sometimes not; the conductor’s lumbering pace for “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen,” in particular, kept the music firmly earthbound. Too often the performance felt dogged and heavy of foot, with the breakout choral moments of “Denn alles Fleisch” and “Herr, lehre doch mich” failing to soar.

Likewise the two soloists were serviceable rather than transcendent. Stephen Hegedus sang solidly, some wobbly moments apart, but his middleweight bass-baritone lacks the sonorous heft and patriarchal authority for this largely declarative role. Caitlin Lynch’s monochrome soprano and cool efficiency failed to touch the heart in “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit.”

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

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