Brahms’ magnificent German Requiem keeps busier than one might think in New York City. A theatrical production by the German company Rundfunkchor Berlin was staged as a part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival in 2016 and the work kicked off the 2018 musical season at St Thomas Church – perhaps the most beautiful cathedral in the city. The weekend after the Oratorio Society of New York’s 3rd March presentation, Jaap von Zweden was booked to lead the New York Philharmonic and the Concert Chorale of New York in three performances of one of Brahms’ finest hours at Lincoln Center's David Geffen Hall. And while it would be an overstatement to say that the piece has been woven into the city’s emotional fabric, the NY Phil under Kurt Masur played Ein Deutsches Requiem just eleven days after the 9/11 attacks in a concert that was broadcast nationally on public television.

Kent Tritle conducting the Oratorio Society of New York
© Tim Dwight

It's a fitting work for a modern metropolis: reverent, mysterious and a little bit distant. We can even imagine it written for a contemporary, secular humanist, cosmopolitan audience. It's a powerful prayer for peace, if not in this life than in the hereafter. Brahms reportedly refused a request to include Christ and the crucifixion in the text, making it a statement of grief and consolation for all people, for any nation.

Everything, then, seemed in place for the Oratorio Society of New York's American premiere of a new edition of the score. Few in the full and enthusiastic house might have been able to spot the rather subtle revisions (or, perhaps, reconstitutions) to the score, with organ and contrabassoon parts, viola mutes and dynamic markings rescued from the original publication of the score. How minor the alterations might have been was of little matter, though. It makes for good hype. And if the hype brings people to the hall, then all is well. Any excuse to hear Brahms' requiem performed is a good excuse.

The 60-strong orchestra and 175-member choir positively filled Carnegie’s huge, gold-leaf stage, and filled the room as well. A chorus that big can nearly inflate a hall with hushed reverence, which they did to breathtaking effect. Conductor Kent Tritle kept the room full, holding the music to a crawl but keeping the pauses between movements brief. The orchestra seemed neither to speed nor ever quite stop. The dynamic, the grandeur, was in the outbursts in volume, delivered at an even-handed pace.

The first two movements couldn't but feel a little like prelude with baritone Takaoki Onishi in open tailcoat on Tritle's right and soprano Susanna Phillips in a blue strapless gown at his left, both exuding patience, hands in their laps. Onishi was a marvel when he stood for “Herr, lehre doch mich”, wonderfully understated, a warm, round tone. When he sat down again, the stage erupted like a jet plane passing through a cloud of angels, slowly. Where Onishi rolled with the music, Phillips soared resplendently. Yet they each projected a calm; these were prayers, not cries. Onishi was of the Earth and Philips of the heavens, him asking the Lord for guidance, her offering consolation. It was only in the final two movements that the glacial pace broke, the chorus splitting into a wondrous dissonance before the hush returned, and again the taking again of breath.

“The Requiem is a forward-thinking work,” Goldsmiths College Emeritus of Music Michael Musgrave wrote in the concert program. “Though Brahms grew up in church with the Luther Bible and knew it and the Apocrypha intimately, he stood increasingly on the borders of conventional Christianity as he grew older.” Timelessness in a work doesn't always imply contemporary applicability. Even in this restoration to Brahms' original conception, the Oratorio Society of New York's Requiem proved the piece to be a solace for these, or any, troubled times.