In a time when death and mourning lack any public or communal aspect, where the funeral procession has ceased to exist save for royalty and the occasional head of state, what relevance does the traditional dirge have? If no one walks behind a hearse anymore, what use is a funeral march? These are questions Jörg Widmann seems to raise in his work for piano and orchestra, Trauermarsch, with which Andris Nelsons and Yefim Bronfman opened this week’s Boston Symphony program.

Thomas Hampson © Dario Acosta
Thomas Hampson
© Dario Acosta
Commissioned by Bronfman and premiered in 2014 with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle, Trauermarsch, like most of Widmann’s music, nods in the direction of his esteemed predecessors, the composer citing Mahler and Berg as particular influences. Yet it is also very much a contemporary piece with its kaleidoscopic timbres, expressive use of dissonance and rhythm, and reliance on a battery of more than twenty percussion instruments played by three percussionists.

The piece opens with two notes a half step apart, struck with diamond clarity by Bronfman. Widman notes that this E flat/F motif has been used to express lament since Monteverdi. It becomes the nucleus around which the rest of the music spins. The notes are repeated, others join them, one of which is jarringly dissonant. The trumpets interrupt in the immediately recognizable cadence of a funeral march initiating a series of variations truncated by the dissonant, anguished outbursts of the orchestra, their spinous harmonies constantly overwhelming melody. Each successive march step stutters into chaos or dissolves into a furious frenzy until the piece collapses in on itself and concludes with stark, muted echoes of the opening march. Bronfman balanced power and precision in an agile and brooding reading, bringing notable lyricism to the quieter passages. Nelsons followed suit as the orchestra parried and shouted down the piano’s assertions.

Brahms said of his Requiem that he could easily dispense with the word “German” and replace it with “Human”. No massed brass proclaiming Judgement Day, no timpani thunderclaps announcing Days of Wrath; everything is on an intimate, personal scale in Ein deutsches Requiem. Brahms assembled his own text, using passages from the Lutheran Bible and allowing himself to shift the focus from that of the traditional Latin text to one of hope and consolation. The first words set the tone, “Blessed are they who mourn,” and are echoed as the same music returns at the beginning of the final section with “Blessed are the dead”.

Thanks to Robert Schumann’s extensive library, Brahms became a student of German Renaissance and Baroque polyphony at an early age. It was a lifelong occupation and imbues the choral writing in his Requiem. As such, a performance will rise and fall on the choral contribution. Unfortunately, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus finds itself weathering a period of transition since its founding conductor, John Oliver, retired after 45 years at the end of the 2014 Tanglewood season. A series of guest conductors have prepared the chorus since, with Lidya Yankovskaya filling the bill for this concert. During Oliver’s tenure, the chorus always sang from memory. Some have continued that practice; others like Yankovskaya have used scores. Different seating arrangements have also been tried. For whatever reason, this performance found the TFC unsettled and uncharacteristically murky in diction, uncertain in intonation, and limited dynamically. There were individual moments of great power and beauty but these parts were greater than the whole.

The same held for Nelsons, who failed to fashion an emotional arc out of individual, impressive moments to tie the seven sections of the piece together into a sublime and transcendent whole. It was a performance of fits and starts additionally hobbled by an unusually long pause after Part III.

The soloists gave a vivid indication of what might have been. Thomas Hampson’s baritone seems ageless. It remains remarkably intact, as fresh and as solid as it ever was. Clear diction and a Lieder-like delivery of the text conspired to create the color and intensity his solos required. Camilla Tilling’s seraphic poise captured the otherworldly repose and consolation of “Ihr hat nun Traurigkeit” inspired by the death of Brahms’ mother.

As it says in the large passage from Corinthians which makes up the bulk of Part VI, “Death is swallowed up in victory”. Regrettably, not so in this performance where victory merely nibbled.