A fine performance by Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Mendelssohn Choir and soloists Klara Ek and Gerald Finley of A German Requiem reminded me once again why it’s high time we reconsidered our conventional opinion of composer Johannes Brahms. Oh yes, we acknowledge that he’s one of the great classical masters, but, in this bicentennial year of the rebellious Richard Wagner, his arch-enemy, Brahms remains unfairly imprisoned on the wrong side of musical history.
A conservative when Europe was shaking with the new, a shy man living in a time when the cult of celebrity was exploding, German Requiem reminds us that Brahms was also a man who sought comfort in religion when all around him were convinced, thanks to Friedrich Nietzsche, that God was dead.
Well, we’ve had a century and a bit of the liberating nihilism of late-19th-century European thought, and maybe it’s time we reconsidered our intellectual axioms. Maybe Brahms’s offering of hopefulness is actually more modern than we think.
Brahms was not a conventionally religious man, and he fashioned the texts of his German Requiem (one of his most private pieces) by cutting and pasting, we would now say, various bits and pieces of the Bible – from the New Testament, the Psalms, and the Prophets. The texts taken together, nonetheless, speak a powerful message of possibility in the face of life’s inevitable tragedy – death. Perhaps inspired by his mother’s passing, perhaps by the death of Robert Schumann, Brahms’s German Requiem (which he thought of calling The Human Requiem) teems with power, anguish, tenderness and eventually hope. In some ways it’s related to another religious masterpiece by an otherwise secular composer, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, but the Brahms is actually more satisfying – less aggressive, more tender, more emotionally complex.
And fittingly, Toronto’s Mendelssohn Choir, fresh off a performance of the Missa Solemnis just a week ago, provided the backbone of the TSO performance of the German Requiem. The chorus is part of the Requiem for almost its entire 70-minute length, and with the preparation of Noel Edison and under the direction of Peter Oundjian, the choir was outstanding – flexible, subtle, powerful, overwhelming. It portrayed the complete emotional range that Brahms lavished on this work, from Lutheran chant to tortured fugue, to lyrical hymn, to joyous celebration.
Ek provided an angelic soprano solo in the piece’s central moment of compassion, from the Gospel of John – “And ye now therefore have sorrow, but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice …” Finley was superb as the baritone soloist in the two sections in which he sings with chorus. And while the orchestra took a bit of time to enter into the elevated spiritual world that Brahms created out of his mind and heart for this work, by the end it had joined the Mendelssohn Choir in a surrender to the force of the music.
“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” So begins the Brahms, but it might well have been the motto for the other work on Wednesday’s program, Peter Lieberson’s Songs of Love and Sorrow, also featuring Finley, for whom the work was written. Lieberson was an American composer who died of lymphoma in 2011, five years after his beloved wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, had succumbed to breast cancer. He was 65; she was only 52.
Theirs was one of the great love stories in the modern history of music, and Songs of Love and Sorrow, to love poems by Pablo Neruda, was his memorial tribute to her. And although the Neruda poems themselves are full of passion and bursting with life, there is a dark tinge to these songs, befitting the circumstances of their composition, with Lieberson reminding us that death is the gravitational pull that gives love its poignant weight, and tragic shape.
Finley sang these songs with perfect beauty, feeling and understanding, and made their emotional life real. Before we heard Brahms explore the possibility of hope after death; the Lieberson plunged us into a more contemporary world, where passion and emotion are all we can expect from life, with its attendant beauties and sadness.
It was a serious night at the concert hall on Wednesday – not perfect performances, but another demonstration of the range and depth of classical music.