Imagine my joy at having the opportunity hear the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Westminster Symphonic Choir perform Brahms' German Requiem, one of the most beautiful and deeply personal choral masterworks I know. I can not hide my love of choral music. There is something uniquely spiritual in the blending of voices with a common intent of communicating a message. There is something beautiful in the integration of voices of people from all backgrounds. There is something healing in singing and hearing this great music. I recall the performances of the Brahms and Mozart Requiems that were quickly produced across the U.S. soon after 9/11. My teachers in college told me of similar occurrences after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Diana Damrau © Michael Tammaro
Diana Damrau
© Michael Tammaro

We believe Brahms recognized this healing effect. Opinion varies on whether he wrote his Deutsches Requiem for his mother or for his friend Robert Schumann, or for both. All agree that his choice of German biblical texts indicates a greater interest in comforting the living than imploring salvation for the dead. Brahms later stated he'd have preferred it be called Ein menschliches Requiem, or a human requiem. In any case, though an early work, it is one of Brahms' greatest.

What any singer needs to sing Brahms' Requiem, as soloist or choral singer, is rock-solid technique, intelligent musicianship, and lungs of steel. Consider the soprano choral opening of the last movement: “Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herrren sterben, von nun an” (Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord, from hence forth). It is a phrase that seems to last for hours, yet the Westminster Choir sopranos gave it all the beauty, all the shape, all the tone, all the textual understanding that it requires. The entire performance was full of such nuanced moments, from thundering moments in Movement II (“Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras”) to the most subtle moments supporting the soprano soloist in Movement V (“Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit”).

The Westminster Choirs have a long history of taking part in concerts with the New York Philharmonic and other world-class orchestras. Their superb preparation under Joe Miller, Director of Choral Activities at Westminster Choir College, as well as their mature sound and excellent musicianship, make them a choir much sought after. I simply exulted in the luxuriant sound of the choir and orchestra. The choir deserved the thunderous ovation it received at the end.

Upon hearing of any Brahms Requiem performance I want to know about Movement IV (“How lovely is thy dwelling place” to those of us who grew up singing G. Schirmer English editions), and Movement V (“Ihr habt nun Traurighkeit”/“Ye now have sorrows”), the soprano solo movement. Both were sublime: beautiful sound, beautifully shaped phrases, and long, legato lines. Just as Movement IV calls for closeness to the Kingdom of God (“Meine Seele verlanget und sehnet sich nach den Vorhöfen des Herrn”/“My soul longeth, yea fainteth, for the courts of the Lord”), Movement V promises assurance of reunion with our loved ones (“...euer Herz soll sich freuen, und eure Freude soll niemand von euch nehmen”/“...your heart shall rejoice, and no one shall take your joy from you”). Diana Damrau gave us the world class performance we expected. One never grows tired of hearing uniformly beautiful line, legato, and intelligent musiciandship. Ms Damrau gave us a floated, expressive, ethereal vocal line as she sang words of comfort from Psalm 84. 

Baritone Christian Gerhaher also sang beautifully, his impassioned solos crying out man's vulnerability in Movement II (“Herr, lehre doch mich”/”Lord, teach me to know”) and hope for redemption in Movement VII (“Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt”/”For here we have no enduring city”).

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Daniele Gatti played with the expected level of precision and grace. One must praise the feeling of ensemble, the shapes of the phrases, the pacing of the entire work. It's a shame there was only one performance of this concert, and that it was on a snowy Sunday afternoon. I'm glad I was there, and I'm sure every other audience member would agree.