“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted”, says the scripture, and it was so last night as Peter Oundjian conducted the mournful music of Brahms and Lieberson. Wave after wave of the rich textures of grieving arose and subsided in song, leaving in their wake the energy of reconciliation.

Peter Oundjian leads the TSO in Brahms German Requiem with Gerald Finley and Klara © Dale Wilcox
Peter Oundjian leads the TSO in Brahms German Requiem with Gerald Finley and Klara
© Dale Wilcox

The grieving of Peter Lieberson is deep. His Songs of Love and Sorrow (2011), based on sonnets by Pablo Neruda, mourn the death of his wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, his own struggle with the lymphoma that was killing him, and the leaving of a new wife Lieberson married during his final months. The cycle of five songs was written for Gerald Finley, who last evening joined his bass-baritone with the voice of the Toronto Symphony in a transcendental musical flow. I particularly enjoyed the the opening “Sonnet XLVI”, an outpouring of low-register ululations in minor mode ornamented with Hebraic cantillations. Lieberson’s powerful melodic lines are gorgeously orchestrated, tinged here and there with exotic chromaticisms, haunting dissonances, and tropically brilliant highlights from woodwinds, piano, and the occasional brass. The fourth song, “Sonnet LXIX”, employs an elusive mystical language, and Finley chanted his portion in an unearthly voice against the murmur of strings and twittering winds, raising the hairs on the back of my neck. The concluding song is all softness, from its start in the muffled hum of basses plucked pizzicato to Finley’s tender “Adios” repeated in a whisper that faded into silence.

Brahms’ German Requiem (1868) is the composer’s most massive work. It brought Brahms instant acclaim and has never gone out of fashion. Nonetheless, because of its immensity, the Requiem can be heavy going if the conductor loses his way among the details. Peter Oundjian, from the start, sets a nice balance of throbbing emotionality at a pace that moves along, jumping and even popping with lively highlights in the right places, as in the mood of “rejoicing” that concludes the first movement. The second movement marches to a timpanic beat, basses surging like heartblood, and the Mendelssohn Choir is urged by Oundjian to swell in waves filled with sonic richness whose subsidence towards the end prepares for the concluding mood of triumph. Gerard Finley brings the intimacy of prayer into the third movement. The response of the chorus is equally tender. The mood of both darken in the middle where the soloist voices a sense of desperation that is answered by the strong, reassuring voice of the choir intoning with force and clarity a consoling passage from the Wisdom of Solomon.

The familiar strains of the fourth (choral) movement, based on the Psalm “How amiable are thy tabernacles”, are comforting, in a modern, multidimensional way, that brought to mind, in a nice way, the word “psychedelic”, as more accurate than the more traditional epithet – “sublime”. The fifth movement is associated with the death of Brahms’ mother – the most profound grief he was to know in his life – yet it is the point where the mood of the work rises up from grieving to comfort – “As one whom his mother comforteth”. Swedish soprano Klara Ek’s song soars above earthly sorrow, like Shelley’s skylark into high, clear altitudes, her voice warmed by “the golden lightning” of imagination. Gerald Finley and the chorus engage in an operatic major–minor dialogue during the sixth Andante. Finley intones an amazingly sustained phrase about being asleep, from which the chorus awakens with a piercing cry, and the baritone responds in a voice clear as a searchlight, “Behold, I show you a mystery”. The movement ends in a triumphant fugue. The Requiem ends, as it began, with the plangent strains of the harp, alluding to possibilities beyond this vale of tears.