Johannes Brahms’ “A German Requiem” needs no special pleading: It is one of Brahms’ greatest and most invitingly idiosyncratic works, a towering masterpiece of the classical music canon, and an unusual approach to a liturgical form that has drawn imaginative responses from composers across history. A great performance will sell itself, with no special frills necessary.

But for the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the work on Monday evening at Merrill Auditorium – a concert held a day earlier than originally scheduled because of the threatened blizzard – Robert Moody came up with a programming idea that made this extraordinary work shine even brighter.

Instead of playing the 65-minute “German Requiem” on the second half of a program that opened with an unrelated symphonic work, he preceded it with two short pieces about death and the afterlife – a Bach hymn setting, “Komm Süsser Tod” (“Come Sweet Death”), in a lush orchestral arrangement by Leopold Stokowski, and Dan Forrest’s “in paradisum…” (2008) – and performed the three works without pause.

It worked beautifully, not only in the moments where each work melted into the next, but as a thematically unified whole.

The Brahms, naturally, was the center of gravity, but the Bach, in Stokowski’s rich scoring, was a perfect, mood-inducing prelude. Stokowski typically applied the rainbow coloration of the modern orchestra to Bach’s spare textures, and for a time – during the early years of the early music “authenticity” movement – his arrangements were regarded as anachronistic and untouchable, more about Stokowski than Bach.

Eventually, musicians and listeners realized that orthodoxies of that sort only rob us of rich musical experiences. Moody drew a superbly blended, supple sound from the orchestra, reveling in Stokowski’s textures while also keeping the sobriety of Bach’s setting in focus.

The Forrest, a conservative and accessible piece, is brighter and more explosive, and moves the action forward, in the context of Moody’s program, with a free-ranging text that was fully in the spirit of the Brahms. Forrest, like Brahms in the “German Requiem,” avoided the established liturgy and instead drew his text, phrase by phrase, from all over the Bible, creating a compassionate view of life in the hereafter.

The result is an appealingly fluid score, suffused with spirituality, with waves of huge choral sound, as well as moments of sublime introspection, supported by a skillfully woven orchestral fabric, particularly rich in decorative woodwind figures. The huge choir – the combined ChoralArt and Oratorio Chorale – gave it a vivid, high energetic reading, although for all its drama, the work’s most compelling moments were in its pianissimo final bars, which morphed easily into the slow, quiet opening of the Brahms.

Brahms was not conventionally religious; raised a Lutheran, he was agnostic for much of his life. So it is not surprising that for his “German Requiem,” which he composed mostly between 1865 (the year his mother died) and 1868 – but which includes music going back to 1854 – he bypassed the formal Latin Requiem Mass in favor of a nontraditional, nondenominational custom text that stressed the frailty of life and peace in death, while also offering consolation to the mourners.

Most strikingly, he rejected the Latin Requiem’s evocation of a wrathful Day of Judgment, which yielded intensely dramatic moments in the Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi Requiems. Still, vehement moments are plentiful in his score, and as in the Forrest, the orchestra and the combined choirs produced an exquisitely grand sound.

Brahms set his Requiem in German rather than Latin, and Moody, in the spirit of having the text understood directly, used a 1983 English translation by Lara Hoggard. I generally prefer to hear works in their original language, but I thought the Hoggard translation worked well. The choir’s enunciation was clean, clear and well-projected, and there were supertitles as backup.

Moody’s rich-hued performance benefited from the contributions of his two fine soloists, baritone Troy Cook, whose contributions in the third and sixth movements had a striking directness, and soprano Twyla Robinson, whose angelic rendering of “You now are sorrowful,” sung from the first balcony, was a highlight of the evening. Robinson will be heard again next season, as a soloist in Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, Moody’s final performances as director of the Portland Symphony.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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