Carl Dahlhaus called Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem “one of those works in which the 19th century recognized its own identity”. This weighty statement was not only inspired by the great success the work found at its première, but also by the stylistic nature of the music and choice of text. Brahms was always stretching one ear backwards into the domain of the ancients, so to speak, and the other ever forward towards innovation. For example, Brahms used many old formal structures in this requiem, such as several fugues, yet chose a text which was so secular as to warrant the theologian-conductor Reinthaler to press Brahms to include at least a mere mention of Jesus Christ. Brahms responded with a good deal of fire that his requiem was first and foremost a human work – a coming-to-terms with death and a consolation for those who mourn.

Kent Nagano conducting the OSM © Felix Broede
Kent Nagano conducting the OSM
© Felix Broede

But it was not the Requiem which opened the concert tonight. Kent Nagano chose to pair Brahms’s longest work with a 20th-century miniature, which turned out to have many poignant connections with the Brahms.

Maestro Nagano explained in his usual careful French that the music of Bernd Alois Zimmermann should be compared to that of Schubert, though certainly not in terms of compositional language. If you asked a contemporary of Schubert, he explained, whether or not that composer was a genius, he would certainly say something like, “Schubert? Why no, he was a total failure. He composed some piano works and a few paltry songs...” Such has been the case for Zimmermann’s work during his life. For both composers, at their own respective pace, their music has climbed steadily out of obscurity and into prominence.

Zimmermann’s Stille und Umkehr fluttered to a start like the sound of butterfly wings. Punctuating this bizarre beginning were sharp attacks from brushes on a snare drum. Many odd instruments were peppered around the ensemble – musical saw, amplified string bass, bowed cymbals which hissed raspingly, and even accordion and saxophone (which I didn’t hear at all). A constant drone on the note D slithered through the music, mutating as it passed from instrument to instrument. It was a bleak landscape – I felt like prey in a post-apocalyptic urban savannah, eyes and ears darting to and fro in search of slouching predators. There was a kind of persistent fear in that unrelenting D (the same note Brahms insisted on in the fugue of his third movement). At all times the dynamic didn’t reach above mezzo-piano. This was an intelligently composed work, and a fine prelude to the Brahms.

Pedal points abound in the German Requiem – harmonic anchors which hold the tonality firm at a subterranean level. Though Brahms was an agnostic and humanist, he clearly saw the concept of God as the humbling incarnation of man’s frailty and fate. These pedal points represent that God-concept of Brahms: gentle yet firm in their resoluteness, and wholly impossible to resist.

Kent Nagano, always the zen master, led the OSM and Choeur de L’OSM with a complete understanding of that Brahmsian humility. His conducting is never brimming with energy, but the musical result is focused intensity and clarity of sound. One of the most powerful movements tonight was the second, “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” or “For all flesh is as grass”. Marzipany strings oozed through luscious suspensions, and just as you began to get lost in the rare orchestral solo, the most paralyzing of melodies opened up in the chorus, which sang completely in octaves, devoid of harmony. Brahms finds a dirge-like sadness in the text, but also a contented acceptance, as if recalling the sweetness of life. There is something more true and direct in octaves, something more akin to speaking – a gripping potency which seems to say “listen to this!” Venerated principal horn John Zirbel led a gargantuan crescendo with brassy snarls, and suddenly some celestial gate was thrown wide and the chorus enveloped the hall with swaths of sound.

Markus Werba was the baritone soloist in the third movement. No stranger to this hall, Werba’s voice was rich in high overtones which cut through the room, and sang with excellent clarity. The baritone’s text is full of fearful plaints, almost desperate – a direct plea to God. The conclusion features a brazen fugue over another insistent pedal tone. At the première, before Brahms had removed much of the wind doubling, this moment was so reeling as to inspire the critic Hanslick to write: “one experienced the sensations of a passenger rattling through a tunnel in an express train!” It is in fact a jarring effect: a fugue which is harmonically so free shackled to the Earth by the unyielding pedal, as if to represent man desperately struggling to break free of mortal fate, only to be effortlessly subdued by one of God’s fingers.

Soprano Sibylla Rubens, though briefly represented tonight, had a keen sense of pitch, a lovely conservation of vibrato, and a very sincere musical approach overall.

The work ends in a place of repose and Mahlerian acceptance of death. In the final strains one can imagine the deathbed, that gentle slouch, the sloughing off of the mortal coil, to emerge in some new, unsullied form. When we die, there are those who believe the passing of time is greatly warped, drawn out. What a serene stream of music Brahms found to guide that journey. There is nothing more warm than the susurration of human voices.

The performance reached a place of total sincerity and respect, with the usual musical proficiency, and did justice to the humble genius of Brahms.