Dohnányi, BSO let the departed rest in sluggish Brahms Requiem
As beloved as Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem is, as much powerful rhetoric and tender consolation as the composer poured into its pages, the work is still not immune to a dull performance, as Christoph von Dohnányi, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus demonstrated Thursday night.
Soloists Hanno Müller-Brachmann, bass-baritone, and Anna Prohaska, soprano—especially the latter–provided the bright spots on a night characterized by plodding tempos, lax rhythms, congealed orchestral textures, and choral singing that sounded harsh in forte and fuzzy in the softer dynamics.
The program notes took due notice of Brahms’s erudition in matters Renaissance and Baroque. Someone hearing the Requiem for the first time on Thursday might be forgiven for thinking this composer the driest old pedant who ever imitated Schütz and Handel, so lacking was Dohnányi’s performance in Brahmsian energy and warmth.
What would this work’s greatest moment, Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely is thy dwelling-place), be without the gentle sway of its liebeslieder-waltz rhythm? The BSO audience found out Thursday night.
Even the rich emotional contrasts of the second movement, Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras—the ominous tread of its opening bars, the swell to a fierce dirge, the sudden switch to a chipper folksong interlude on the line So seid nun geduldig—were grayed out in Dohnányi’s slack, one-tone-fits-all rendering.
In fact, the entire performance was a cautionary study in how important a firm rhythmic foundation is, no matter what the music’s mood. Without it, phrases lost shape and direction, ensemble playing grew shaky, crescendos lacked emotional conviction and became just a dialing-up of sound, the chorus’s tone and diction sagged—and, for the listener, minutes began to seem like hours.
At least the sheer athleticism required for the two grand fugues—closing the third and sixth movements, respectively—pulled up the performers’ energy level, giving force and momentum to those climactic moments in the score.
One looked forward to the vocal solos as an escape from this lugubrious miasma, and the singers did not disappoint. Müller-Brachmann projected the fervent, anxious prayer Herr, lehre doch mich in a distinctive bass-baritone timbre, intensely focused yet surrounded by dark resonances, that suited the part. His voice sounded a little forced and rough in fortissimo, however, when sounding “the last trump” in the sixth movement.
Soprano Prohaska seemed miscast at first, her light, sweet voice not maternal enough for a movement inspired by the composer’s late mother. But that thought was quickly banished by the grace and spontaneity of her phrasing, the ease with which she soared to high notes, the clear and consistent tone throughout her range, and the emotional shadings she brought to the text. How one wished for more of that the rest of the evening!
Ein deutsches Requiem will be repeated Friday at 1:30 p.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m. bso.org; 617-266-1200.
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