Diction, emotion carry Brahms

20. Oct. 2006 – The Spokane Symphony celebrated the work of Johannes Brahms again Friday following the orchestra's Brahms Blast of two weeks ago. Friday's performance contained only one work. But what a work it was - Brahms' great German Requiem - and performed in the brilliant style that made the evening a real celebration.

 

Conductor Eckart Preu confessed in a pre-performance talk that Brahms' Requiem is his favorite work. And the intensity and care he coaxed from the orchestra, his team of soloists and especially the Symphony Chorale made it seem the favorite work of everyone on the stage.

 

This Requiem is unlike any other. First, it is in German not the Latin of the Roman Catholic Requiems of composers such as Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi. Second, it is not intended as a Mass or church piece. Third, the text was chosen by the composer from Luther's German translation of the Bible - using no less than 16 passages from the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha.

 

The work was performed in the original German with projected supertitles giving the English King James translation. But one of the most striking elements of Friday's performance was the excellence of the Chorale's German. It was not simply a matter of very clear diction. The characterization of individual words of the text - loaded nouns such as the German equivalents of "sorrow" and "joy," "weeping" and "comfort" - had a powerful impact.

 

The quality of the choral singing was a tribute to both Preu's intensive work with the chorale but also its preparation by director Lori Wiest.

 

The evening featured two fine soloists - soprano Charlotte Pistor, who is new to the Spokane audience, and baritone Frank Hernandez, a Spokane favorite since his days as a student at Whitworth College. Hernandez showed not only the same beauty in his singing as always, but a steady growth in maturity and authority as a musician. His singing in "Herr, lehre doch mich" (Lord, make me to know the measure of my days) showed a depth and seriousness that was most impressive.

 

Pistor, though a native of Washington, has lived in Salzburg for a number of years, and the quality of her German lent special poignancy to her performance of "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit" (Ye are now sorrowful), Brahms' touching tribute to his mother, whose death was a strong force in the composition of the Requiem.

 

Preu has remarked frequently in interviews and in his pre-performance talks on the transparency he finds in Brahms' music. This is a quality that eludes (or does not concern) many conductors as they luxuriate in the creamy richness of Brahms' sonorities. But Preu found a lightness in Brahms' orchestration and a dance-like vigor to the rhythms that made the Requiem flow like a brook rather than a sea of lava.

 

Brahms is not celebrating a signal anniversary, such as the 250th of Mozart's birth or the 100th of Shostakovich's. But Friday's performance of Brahms' Requiem provided its own excuse of a splendid performance of a great composer's grandest achievement

 

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