For Us The Living
Ned Rorem: Now Voyager (World Premiere)
Johannes Brahms: A German Requiem
Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano)
John Cheek (bass-baritone)
Kurt Ollmann (baritone)
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Robert Bass (conductor)
Ein deutsches Requiem holds a unique place in music history. Brahms’ reverence for the past, which bordered on obsession and would later cause him to be fired as music director of the Vienna Philharmonic, did not prevent him from developing a totally original conception within this normally religious genre. Although the genesis of the idea may have been the inspiration of Schumann, it was Brahms who decided to fashion a mass not for the facilitation of the migration of the souls of the dead but rather a gentle work of comfort for all of those, regardless of their degree of faith, who were left behind. The key to the underlying message of conciliation lies within the structure of the work itself. Brahms invents a crab canon of form revolving around a softly lyrical fourth movement of universal repose, a rocking of the cradle in nature’s nursery. Of the seven movements, the first and last form a pair (not just in spirit, but much of the same music inhabits both), the second and sixth contain powerful fugal constructions, and the third and fifth are rhapsodies with vocal soloists (although, Brahms being Brahms, he can’t resist creating a great double fugue after the baritone sits down in the third movement). The emphasis on counterpoint and pedal point fugue suggests that the orchestra is a secular substitute for the organ and that the proper home for this music is definitely the concert hall (although I have heard some fine performances over the years inside various churches, they always seem a little out of place). All of this complex architecture serves to highlight the understatement of the central fourth movement which, like the near perfect gem of tenderness that is the third movement of the mighty Symphony # 1, stands as one of the Hamburg master’s most memorable poems. The expurgation of the Latin text (and any mention of Christ) establishes a direct connection between artist and his public and the German alternative, fashioned by the composer himself, underscores Brahms’ intense kinship with the volk at a time when he was feeling especially patriotic. Although it is probably coincidental that the work as a whole begins with a variation on the Austrian (later German) national anthem (see letters to Adolf Schubring from 1869), it is certainly true that Brahms was especially passionate about the Franco-Prussian War and took great satisfaction, as he expressed in contemporary missives to Hermann Levi, that his Requiem was employed on several occasions to pay honor to the dead soldiers.
A performance of this choral classic by the group which Robert Shaw founded exactly 60 years ago, especially when combined with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, whose brand of Brahms I find particularly inspiring, is an eagerly awaited event. It is also an opportunity for especial scrutiny of the singers and their maestro, as the orchestra will be repeating this same work in January under Previn when Carnegie Hall presents its annual culminating concert of the choral workshop also inspired by the ubiquitous shade of Shaw. The Collegiate Chorale is, of course, at home in this milieu; in fact, they are the group which commissioned perhaps the finest requiem of the 20th century, Paul Hindemith’s powerful imagery on Whitman’s text “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”.
Not the Bette Davis film but rather the original Whitman poem is the inspiration for Ned Rorem’s Now voyager (the comma is indeed removed). The work is an inventive juxtaposition of rhapsodies on erotic and romantic love (often in waltz time) with uncompromising images of the apocalyptic nature of war. Inspired by the poet’s emotions as an 1860’s nurse (Brahms’ and Whitman’s battles were fought within ten years of one another), the piece has textual similarities to John Adams’ The Wound Dresser which Thomas Hampson and the New York Philharmonic will be presenting in January. What struck me immediately was the superb depth of the chorus, a remarkable blending of voices far superior to the average vocal convocation. The orchestra supplies mostly background in this essay, allowing our attention to focus on the assembled singers. In the obverse of many classical concerts, this chorus did not seem to be a musical afterthought, thrown together to compliment a more professional instrumental ensemble. The Collegiate Chorale is itself the main attraction. As the two male soloists (this is Whitman, after all) added poignancy to their portrayals, strictly in terms of tessitura, it seemed odd that the lower-voiced Mr. Cheek would be chosen over the pure baritone of his colleague for the Brahms to come. I have always appreciated the art of Rorem and it was delightful to see him bound up onto the stage at the conclusion to accept the cheers for his maiden voyager. The chorus was brilliant throughout and, as a result, made me expect an extraordinary performance of the Requiem.
And, in the main, I got it. Robert Bass, the preserver of this magnificent choral sound, led an introspective and tender version of this masterpiece for choir. His interpretive power is concentrated on his finely tuned vocal creation and he demonstrated his coloristic abilities with several shadings of balance which fit the text handsomely. The slight emphasis on the deep basses at the beginning of the “Denn alles Fleisch” section was suitably foreboding, even though the movement as a whole reduced its fire and brimstone to an ember. The building of that third movement fugue was also very impressive, the orchestra divided into two interlocking melodic units while the chorus is itself pursuing other duple thematic material. This complexity can easily fall apart in less secure hands, but in this performance it was exquisitely crafted. The fullness of the choral sound was simply breathtaking. The protean St. Luke’s group was allowed by Mr. Bass to play more expansively than is their normal discipline and rose to the occasion with a lushly zaftig reading only a bit frustrated by the maestro’s insistence on a consistently low volume level (at the end of the day, he is a chorus master at heart). As I had feared, Mr. Cheek revealed considerable strain in his high solo part during his first appearance, although in fairness it should be pointed out that his much lower sixth movement performance was actually quite good. Through the end of the pivotal fourth section, this was perhaps the best concert that I have heard all season.
But when that crab started to walk backwards, everything raveled. I have heard Heidi Grant Murphy sing this part with the Phil before and find her lack of breath control particularly disconcerting. Her voice is not unpleasant, but she has little ability to sustain such a delicate melodic line. In order for this fifth movement to work properly, the soprano must soar over the orchestra (this is the only section where the chorus gets to rest) and this is impossible for Ms. Murphy, who breathes in all of the wrong places. After their break, the chorus came back less sure of themselves, the tenors especially reduced to shrieking their entrances in the “where is thy sting” fugue. Even the rock steady orchestra showed signs of wear and tear in this sixth section and the general impression, which unfortunately lasted straight through to the quiet ending of the entire piece, was that the participants were fatigued. The last movement was a bit disorganized but still preserved the gentleness which was the goal of this particular rendition. Overall, this was a fine effort, the most moving passages those that Brahms wrote in the rocking comfort of three-quarter (or 6/8) meter, providing a secure haven from the tribulations of the common time of the outside world. Although I would have wished for more contrasts of emotions in the work as a whole, I do respond positively to this conductor’s statement of universal comfort. An extra portion of balm was liberally applied to soothe the reality that life interferes in art: Scott Bart, one of the members of this splendid ensemble, perished at the World Trade Center. It would have swelled the composer’s heart to know that Mr. Bart’s colleagues paid such a dignified tribute to a fallen comrade.
Frederick L. Kirshnit