Dohnányi, BSO let the departed rest in sluggish Brahms Requiem

April 6, 2012 at 10:28 am

By David Wright

Christoph von Dohnányi and soloists Anna Prohaska and Hanno Müller-Brachmann following the BSO performance of Brahms' "Ein deutsches Requiem" Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

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.; 617-266-1200.

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “Dohnányi, BSO let the departed rest in sluggish Brahms Requiem”

  1. Posted Apr 06, 2012 at 11:03 am by Jeff Foley

    Mr. Wright, I have to say I’m honestly surprised to hear your disappointment at the performance last night. As a chorus member, I felt it was one of our better performances not only of the Requiem but on the year. Our German diction was crisper than it’s ever been thanks to incessant drilling by Maestro von Dohnányi, and per his direction we held very true to the actual dynamics as written by Brahms, rather than adding our own indulgences to the phrasings.

    The audience members I checked in with were quite pleased with the performance. I can only assume you have a favorite interpretation that prefers different tempi and phrasing; I admit it took a day or two of rehearsals with Maestro to adapt to his preferences, which were different than mine.

    I respect your opinion and will continue to look forward to reading your reviews. I thank you for your honesty here, but I hope that you were in the minority! And that your write-up doesn’t dissuade others from hearing our performances on Friday and Saturday.

  2. Posted Apr 06, 2012 at 11:03 am by Jaegermeister

    You, sir, are NUTS.
    You can’t please all of the people…
    I’ve sung about 15 performances of this work with conductors from Philadelphia to Boston. This was the most affecting, sensitive, and informed performance I’ve ever been privileged to be a part of. I repeat:
    You, sir, are NUTS.

  3. Posted Apr 06, 2012 at 6:10 pm by E.L.

    I am in shock at this review. I can’t believe we were present at the same performance! I completely disagree with your assessment of Dohnányi’s leadership, and I am flabbergasted that you would have anything complimentary to say about Ms. Prohaska, whose singing I found to be out-of-tune, strained, and utterly lacking in breath support, and who was indeed miscast (not to mention the fact that her hairdo left me questioning her sanity). If anything, she was the low point, not the “bright spot.”

  4. Posted Apr 09, 2012 at 1:00 pm by Kathy

    Wow, I totally disagree with your review. I listened to the performance live on the radio and was so moved by both the orchestra and chorus. I thought their diction and intensity was wonderful! As far as the soloists, they were OK, but I found Ms. Prohaska’s voice thin and strained and Mr. Muller-Brachman’s performance to lack flow.

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