As a music critic I have attended a sufficient number of Masses to considerably shorten my time in purgatory, but I would trade them all – by Mozart, Bach or Verdi – for one live performance of Brahms’ “German Requiem.” In terms of architectural construction, innovation, melody, counterpoint and deep feeling, it has no equal.
In his selection of passages from Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible, Brahms creates a threnody that reaches far across religious boundaries.
The performance of the “Requiem” Sunday afternoon by the Oratorio Chorale, under the direction of Emily Isaacson at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland, was one of the most moving musical events I have seen in the past decade.
Brahms’ own transcription for piano four-hands, played by Justin Blackwell and Derek Herzer, was more revelatory of the composer’s intentions, and his unique voice, than the standard version. At times it sounded like his piano concertos and at others like the “Liebeslieder” waltzes.
Soprano Margot Rood and baritone Bradford Gleim added significantly to the effect, but it was the chorale itself that took the honors, with a power that could raise the dead and a sweetness that could make them happy with it.
The second movement, “All flesh is like grass,” was particularly fine, with its dirge-like repeats of the primary theme, interspersed with contrasting moods and interrupted by a shout of “Aber des Herrn Wort bliebet in Ewigheit” (“But the Word of the Lord endureth forever.”). The movement is built on an unforgettable four-note motif, which Isaacson and the chorus never lost sight of.
The middle section, “Wie lieblich sind Deine Wohnungen” (“How lovely are Thy dwelling places”), begins to reveal what Brahms could do with the Viennese waltz. But its use in the penultimate movement is miraculous in its display of the power that can be transmitted in normally frivolous three-quarter time. The fortissimo is followed by a fugue in a contrasting mood that would have made Bach proud if not envious.
If I have any quarrel at all with the “Requiem” and the chorale’s interpretation of it, it would be with the ethereal final movement, “Denn wir haben hier keine bleibende Stadt” (“For here we have no lasting city”). Like Schubert, whom Brahms sometimes uses as a model, the composer seems reluctant to leave such beauties behind. He tries various cadences, none of which will live up to what has gone before, and eventually lets the sound fade away into heaven.
Come to think of it, what else could he have written that would not have sounded as flat and banal as the New Revised Standard Version translation that accompanied the German text in the program?
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be contacted at: