The Netherlands Radio Choir (Groot Omroepkoor) is currently celebrating its 70th anniversary with a series of jubilee concerts. In a list of their favourite choral works drawn up for Dutch radio, choir members put Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem in first place, followed by Verdi’s Messa da Requiem and Britten’s War Requiem. The chorus is undoubtedly the star in the Brahms. It is prominent in all seven movements, including the three featuring solo singers. The work that established Brahms’ reputation certainly received star treatment last Sunday at the Concertgebouw, not only from the chorus, but from the excellent soloists, in a controlled and sympathetic transcription by conductor Edo de Waart

Peter Mattei © Håkan Flank
Peter Mattei
© Håkan Flank
Imagine a funeral service put together by a grieving mourner in search of meaning and solace. Criss-crossing through the Old and New Testaments, he assembles Biblical texts as a believer in their spirit of compassion, but without subscribing to religious dogma. Being the great Johannes Brahms, the mourner sets the quotations to sublime music to soothe and strengthen the broken-hearted. Ein deutsches Requiem is not so much a rite of passage for the dead as balm for the souls of the living. Unlike previous requiems, it is not a setting of a liturgical mass. Brahms picked the words from the German Luther Bible carefully, avoiding references to religious doctrine such as salvation through the Passion of Christ or the damnation of sinners to hell. Its strong humanist slant gives it a universal, direct message. Musically, it is a continuation of Bach’s great choral counterpoint legacy. Essentially meditative in character, it also expands to grand 19th-century scale and takes wing in inspired fugues.

The humanity of the composer saturates both words and music. Whatever his faults, such as his reputation for brusqueness, Brahms was clearly a man with a big heart. His admiration of his friend and colleague Robert Schumann and the fact that he was in love with his wife, Clara, could explain why Brahms rearranged his life to help Clara and her many children when Robert tried to drown himself and was hospitalised in 1854. His continuing emotional and practical support long after Robert’s death, however, attests to his steadfast and generous nature. As likely as not, his feelings about the Schumann tragedy found expression in his Requiem, as did his grief at his mother’s death in 1865. The chorus is a collective voice seeking, and finding, hope in spite of suffering. The text begins and ends with the word “selig” (blessed). In the third movement, the baritone solo rises from the faceless mass to wonder, in the words of Psalm 39, about the meaning and evanescence of life.

It is hard to imagine Peter Mattei being bettered in this passage, both in terms of beauty of tone and word clarity. With his perfect theatrical instinct he gave the searching voice recognisable contours, and a quasi-Wagnerian culmination when he returned in the dramatic sixth movement. The questioning of the baritone and the chorus is answered in Part Five by the soprano with consoling words. Aga Mikolaj’s voice, spun with assured calm, was halfway between angelic and womanly, fulfilling the intent of this solo. Brahms added this movement shortly after the work premièred in 1868. The words from Isaiah, “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you”, are thought to refer to his beloved mother. The soprano solo starts by acknowledging the sorrow of the bereaved, then precedes her words of solace with a reiterated “aber” (but). Ms Mikolaj put incredible warmth in those “abers”.

Her angelic but decidedly feminine sound was echoed in the choir with glowing soprano high Gs and As. Whether in hushed contemplation or soaring through the looping fugues, the Netherlands Radio Choir displayed its trademark rich texture. Their middle sections remain their biggest strength, the fabulous tenors and altos forming a radiating core that swelled majestically at full force.

On the rostrum, Edo de Waart proved a master of dynamic control, leading up to climaxes in gentle but insistent tidal motion. He kept both choir and orchestra on a constant simmer, even when pared down to the merest whisper. The Netherlands Radio Orchestra missed the final bit of polish to make this a completely satisfying performance, with occasional saggy phrasing and hazy pitch, but all in all was in good form. There were moments of gauzy delicacy in the violins and the trombones and horns produced some wonderfully mellow half-pianos. At under 70 minutes, this performance clocked in on the swifter side of average. Even the fleetest tempi, however, felt considered. As a whole, it pertinently struck the introspective but all-embracing nature of the work. No better musical symbol for the emphatic effect of this rendition than Aisling Casey’s oboe solos, as tender as a comforting hand on a stooped shoulder.

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