REVIEW: Jaap van Zweden leads a glowing, hopeful German Reqiuem
FEBRUARY 9, 2019
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
Jaap van Zweden leads a luminescent performance of Johannes Brahms's A German Reqiuem this week, in yet another change of gears for the New York Philharmonic's new conductor. Featuring the large Concert Chorale of New York, under the direction of James Bagwell, and soloists Ying Fang, soprano, and Matthias Goerne, baritone, Brahms's unique entry into the canon of the requiem glowed with a sense of hope.
Brahms's work, called a German requiem, distinguishing it from the traditional Latin variety, assembles text from the Bible, was composed shortly after the death of his mother, and may also have drawn inspiration from the composer's friend Robert Schumann (who died in 1856). Thus, even though Brahms is known for intimate piano pieces, this large work may be his most personal.
Van Zweden's interpretation has a sense of forward purpose, even a sense of urgency, at times, as in the second movement, "For all flesh is as grass," which has a long build to its resolution, when the chorus sings, "And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion / with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads; / they shall obtain joy and gladness / and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." This is typical of the text Brahms chose for this requiem -- comfort to the living. Bagwell's fine chorus sounded resplendent, their German diction elegant and the musical line extremely well-sculpted.
Goerne, in the third movement's plea, "Lord, teach me that there must be an end of me," brought his rich, chocolatey voice and soaring phrasing, as well as the same physical freedom as he does to Lieder. Some may find his presence mannered, but I find it suited to the profundity of the material, and the weight of Brahms's orchestral writing.
Fang's crystalline, lyric soprano brought heartfelt tenderness to her solo, which seems to represent the voice of the deceased, singing "Ye now therefore have sorrow; / but I will see you again," and poignantly, "I will comfort you, as one whom his mother comforts." Her sincerity and warmth rose above the soothing support of the chorus, while van Zweden again seemed to counteract any sentimentality with a sense of purpose.
The Philharmonic played splendidly throughout, the woodwinds blending imperceptibly with the strings, and the brass, not given any showiness to sink their teeth into here, provided just the right amount of metallic glint and skeletal support. If there is any fault in Brahms's Requiem, it is that it's one moderate tempo after another, and I wondered if, especially, the final Chorus (which Brahms marked "Solemnly") might have had more emotional impact played at a slower tempo. They play the German Reqiuem one more time, Saturday at 8, and without anything else on the program (thankfully), it's a beautiful concert, and a welcome salve in these anxious times.