Arts & Events

Derek Tam Conducts A German Requiem by Brahms

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday February 04, 2018 - 01:58:00 PM

There is a noble idea behind Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutches Requiem/A German Requiem, but somehow this work leaves me cold. The idea itself is laudatory: Brahms sought to write a requiem not for the dead but for those, still living, who mourn the dead. As Brahms once put it, “Life robs one of more than death does.” Put differently, death simply puts an end to things, but life exposes one to ongoing struggle and pain and loss. 

As part of the Resonance concert series at First Congregational Church, Derek Tam led the First Church Festival Chorus and Orchestra in a performance of Brahms’ A German Requiem on Friday evening, February 2. Hearing it live, my impressions of this work didn’t change from what I thought of it by way of the splendid recording of it on Deutsche Grammophone with the Berlin Philharmonic led by Herbert von Karajan. To my mind only two of this Requiem’s seven sections are truly moving. After a muffled chorus begins this work singing “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen”/”Blessed are they that mourn,” the second section offers a chorale-like “Denn alles Fleisch ist wie Gras”/”All Flesh is like grass,” and this leads into a grim dance of death with arching themes in the orchestra. I like this lengthy second section quite a bit; and Derek Tam’s conducting brought out the rhythmic sway of this dance of death. However, the chorus sings of the eventual return of the “ransomed of the Lord,” i.e., those who mourn. So this section closes on a note of hope. The third section features a baritone solo, here sung by Nikolas Hackley, who was solid in his performance, though I find Brahms’ insistence on the vanity of all life a bit much. The fourth section features the chorus in a lyrical vein singing praise of the Lord’s tabernacles. Ho hum.  

Section number five is my favorite. It features a soprano, here sung by Angela Arnold. It opens with the words, “Ihr habt nun Traurugkeit”/”They now have sorrow,” and one can hear the sorrow in the plaintive elongations and repetitions of the word “Traurigkeit.” My love of this music stems from hearing the great German soprano Gundula Janowitz sing this part on the aforementioned Deutsche Grammophone recording. As heard here. Angela Arnold’s voice was a bit shrill in the high notes, though the music never fails to move me.  

In the sixth section, Brahms lets out all the stops. The music fairly explodes, but I find it overly dramatic to the point of being turgid, full of Christian triumphalism. “Death is swallowed up in victory,” go the words. “O death, where is thy sting?” After the forced drama of the sixth section, the final section simply repeats music from the work’s opening section. Only this time around the words are “Blessed are the dead, which die in the name of the Lord.” The Brahms Requiem closes softly, on yet another note of Christian triumphalism. 



Errata: In my review last week of the New Century Chamber Orchestra’s concert celebrating Mozart’s birthday, I incorrectly cited the concertmaster’s name as Daniel Horn in the concluding sentence of my review. It should be Daniel Hope, as correctly cited earlier in my review.