Monday, March 7, 2016

Musical Explanation 3/7/16: A German Requiem at the BSO

Stenz did it again!

I was crying, the soprano was crying, the principal second violin was crying. It was the most beautiful, life-affirming performance of Brahms's German Requiem I ever expect to hear. For the twenty-four hours after this concert, I've been listening to little but this piece which seems so morbid in so many other hands, and I realize now, never have I ever heard a performance of it this good, either live or on record. Nobody, not Klemperer, not Blomstedt, not Gardiner, Masur, Norrington, Bruno Walter, Herreweghe, Schuricht, Furtwangler, Saraste, Bychkov, Sawallisch, Shaw, Karajan, Giulini, dear departed Harnonourt - not a single conductor in the history of recording has gotten closer to mining this monsterpiece for every single expressive nuance than did this modestly attended live performance in Baltimore.

That's not to say that it was a perfect performance. It was, unmistakably, too fast. I hardly blame any conductor for taking a work at too fast a clip when conductors for at least a hundred years have tried to make this piece as ponderous as possible, but over and over again, I found myself thinking that the impact was dulled by the fact that Stenz insisted on being so fast that certain details skated breathlessly over. And yet, within the fast tempos were a seeming infinity of slow-downs (retards) and phrase bends. At the end of the second movement, Stenz seemed to slow the tempo by 30-40%, and the result was the most unbearably moving crescendo on the words 'Eternal Joy.' Had I been the only person in the audience, I would have probably allowed my blubbering wreck of a self to emit verbal sobs. In the third movement, a la Furtwangler, he started the retard to the last note measures before it's marked in the lead up to the famously fermataed D-major chord, which he made the chorus hold onto for nearly seven seconds (I made sure to count). This is just two particularly obvious examples, but it's the kind of surprise Stenz repeated dozens of times.

Even if Stenz was not ideal, lots of other things were: bass-baritone Eric Owens and lyric soprano Lisette Oropessa, were as ideal for as two non-native German speakers could ever be. But the greatest wonder of all was neither the conductor nor the orchestra nor the soloists, it was the chorus - the University of Maryland Concert Choir, an ensemble literally comprised of a hundred American choral scholars - the future music educators of America. Intonation was perfect, diction was perfect, dynamics were expertly varied, pronunciation was as stunningly close to perfect as a chorus of Americans will get in German. But all that would be nothing at all without their overwhelming sincerity of expression, the kind of earnestness and care we all lose by the time we're thirty and just trying to get by in life. Watching them alone was enough to put me in tears, watching an impressively multi-racial group of future music teachers and knowing that if they can do this, the future of music in America is a lot more secure than we worry it is.

Not just in the concert hall. I can reliably get twenty-five people to come to parties at my house, but I can't get anybody to reliably come with me to Baltimore Symphony concerts. But once again, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because by two minutes in I was a tear-stained, mucus-sludged wreck, and remained so for the next hour.

Brahms is *my* composer, or, at very least, the composer whose ethos I feel most within my own. What I love most in Brahms is that simple genuineness of his that so many people mistaken for severity. To be sure, there is severity aplenty in Brahms, but it's the kind of severity that can only be offputting to people who feel the need to be pandered to. Brahms's lack of ostentation is almost ostentatious. He never turns his back on old models that are proven to work, but never flinches from their limitations. His work contains all the heroic Beethovenian gestures of transcendence, but never pretends that heroism and individuality are a cureall. His work operates on the same level of microscopic detail and care of craft as Bach, but Brahms's craft, unlike Bach's, is never motivated by religious mania or the greater glory of God. His music has just as dizzyingly playful an array of musical effects as Mozart has, but Brahms, unlike Mozart, never pulled any punches about the darkness of human nature. He has all the melancholy and heartbreak of Schubert, and contrary to popular belief he's almost as fecund a melodist, but unlike Schubert he has an infinite arsenal of other effects than melody. His music has all the outsize emotionalism of Schumann, but unlike Schumann, he never wears his emotions on his sleeve, and thus his emotions are even more complex.

Does this make Brahms the greatest of all? Well, probably not... I probably love Brahms above all other music, but we all need an occasional pander. The fact that Brahms was so concerned with the fundamental questions means that we never had an opera from him, because what operatic subject can possibly match his seriousness of purpose? In real life, Brahms had a fantastic sense of humor, but hardly ever do we hear that humor in his music. For all the high spirits in his music, Brahms views music as the most serious possible business. Every note seems as though he poured over it for years before he wrote it down. No instrument ever draws attention to itself, every musician, every instrument, every note, is there to serve the musical message. There is nothing in Brahms that doesn't plumb the metaphysical depths of music. If you aren't ready for something that forces you to look within your most serious self, stay home.

And since there is no easy answer in Brahms, either musically or metaphysically, his music will never strive for a gesture in which he doesn't believe. In his German Requiem, whose title he always hated, he assembles a small compendium of Biblical quotations about death. Rather than the traditional Latin Requiem Mass which puts the emphasis on the soul's afterlife and the judgement of sinners, the emphasis is on the living - a modern emphasis for the agnostic on those still left behind. "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted", the text begins with this quote from the Gospel According to Matthew.

There is no mention in this text of damnation, no judgement of how we live our lives. All Brahms wants to do is assure the listener that their loved ones are now in a better place. It's an understanding of the afterlife much closer to the Jewish 'Olam Ha'Ba', an all-inclusive heaven, then to the Christian idea of an exclusive heaven from which sinners are barred.

It is, furthermore, the exact opposite of the Verdi and Berlioz Requiems. The Verdi and Berlioz are vast theatrical tableaus that exploit the vividness of the afterlife's imagery to paint the liturgical equivalent of operas. Brahms's requiem, like Faure's, sees seems to view such extreme sonic pageantry as hollow. Rather than treat an ancient text so frivolously as to make a pseudo-opera out of it (glorious as both Verdi and Berlioz's requiems are...), Brahms finds a new way to mourn that gives the comfort and awe that the traditional Requiem seemed to have done in centuries past.

Brahms chose the title 'A German Requiem' because it was a requiem assembled not from the text of the Latin liturgy still prevalent in Catholicism, but because he chose his texts for the German-translated Bible of Martin Luther. While Brahms was not religious, I don't doubt that he took a bit of pride in being a cultural Protestant who knew his Bible very well, and in the 19th century, many people still considered Protestantism the height of sophisticated thought. While Catholicism was still mired in beliefs and traditions that seemed 500 years out of date, the flexibility of Protestant churches meant that Protestants were able to move forward with the times. In the mid-19th century, a Protestant from Germany could consider himself the height of sophistication and tolerance. But in later years, Brahms deeply regretted the nationalist overtone of his title because as he grew older, the nationalism of Germany began to run amuck, first under Bismarck, and then moreso under Kaiser Wilhelm II. He rather suggested a much more fitting and eloquent title: A Human Requiem. This requiem is not meant to appease an angry God or to fill its listeners with fear, it is meant to console real people with real problems, and make the loneliness that accompanies losing people a little easier to bear.

As I heard Brahms's most life-affirming of Requiems, I couldn't help but think to myself how lucky I've been. I lost a youngish grandfather very early in life, and everyone agrees that the premature loss of Morris Witow was a disaster in all kinds of ways for our family. But after the early 1990's, my family unit has stayed almost completely as it was. As I heard this music yesterday, part of the reason it had such a powerful emotional pull over me was the realization that we cannot last too much longer together as we have for so long. No matter how in shape and healthy my Bubbie seems, she's 95 years old, and even if - God forbid - we lost her tomorrow, it could never be considered a tragedy. My Dad is now seventy, my Mom is sixty-five, and their peers are starting to die off. I have no idea what my immediate family will look like in ten years, but for worse or better, the chance that it will look as it always has is quite small at best. Brahms's requiem is a requiem that tells us no matter whom we lose, there will always be consolations to those of us remaining in dear life.

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