Touching the Sublime

Jason Victor Serinus on May 27, 2008
Although Johannes Brahms carried great pain over his apparently unconsummated relationship with Clara Schumann, the heartfelt beauty of his most popular music speaks far more of resolution and transcendence rather than enslavement to suffering. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the great German Requiem, Op. 45, with which Michael Tilson Thomas has chosen to close San Francisco Symphony’s three-week Brahms Festival. Ein Deutsches Requiem is huge and monumental, if not as heaven-shaking as Verdi's masterpiece. The work's biblical texts mainly concern themselves with the comfort, peace, and joy that spring from faith and transcendence (aka “deliverance”). Although MTT conducts his fair share of Romantic repertoire, from Schubert to Richard Strauss, he seems to eschew romantic indulgence in favor of a no-nonsense approach. Occasionally, when an unusually persuasive and passionate soloist on the order of Yefim Bronfman joins the orchestra, he allows romantic sway to take hold of the proverbial baton. But much of the time, at least to these ears, he embraces straightforward, let-the-music-speak-for-itself musicianship. The results — as in this final program of Brahms, or as in Leif Ove Andsnes' performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 — are often immaculately sculpted, and unfailingly beautiful, but they ultimately fail to scale the firmament. Having said that, MTT and his forces got mighty close in this German Requiem. The singing was especially glorious when the chorus opened up full voice, as at the end of "Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras" (For all flesh is as grass). Here, you could only marvel at Brahms’ mastery of massed forces. The soprano choristers were especially ideal, with voices ever warm, radiant, and consoling. The tenors often matched them in caressing sweetness, although their thinner sound and lack of corresponding body when opening up led to an unfortunate imbalance in the great fugue at the end of the penultimate section, "Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt" (For here we have no continuing city). But most of the time, as in the conclusion of the opening section, "Selig sind, die da Leid tragen" (Blessed are they that mourn), Ragnar Bohlin’s chorus sang sublimely.

Superb Soloists

The soloists, too, were something special. In Davies Hall, at least from orchestra row J, the full body of baritone Matthias Goerne’s ever-caressing, warm midrange glowed as it cannot in the drier confines of Herbst Theatre. Even his oft-distracting physical movement, more restrained than in his recent performance of Brahms’ Four Serious Songs in Herbst, actually made sense — his body language spoke of the soul breaking free of its earthly confines. Goerne is one of the most profound and contemplative singers we have. He may initially appear pondering and burdened, but his singing reveals that is because he is ever probing deeper into the music his voice brings to life. Soprano Laura Claycomb achieved what relatively few singers can — the absolutely right, exquisitely radiant, soaring tone that grants transcendent comfort. It’s not easy to sit silent as long as she did, and then open your throat to deliver an impeccable stream of heavenly sound, as a little glitch in the opening phrase and a few minor intonation problems suggested. But she did a marvelous job of getting a handle on her voice, and delivered one of the finest renditions of "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit" (Ye now have sorrow) that I have ever heard live or on recording. (Speaking of recording, few sound systems can realistically convey the profundity of the low organ notes that Brahms uses to underscore his message. If ever there were an argument for live performance over Memorex, this was it.)

Yes, But

So, what’s the quibble? Mainly that MTT's no-nonsense tempi failed to sufficiently differentiate between sections. Everything felt a bit too similar, without the contrasts and shadings that make for greatness. The soprano solo, as beautiful as it was, felt too strict in time, and shifts within choral movements weren’t radical enough. As in the performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 that I recall from several years back, we were led right up to heaven’s door, gave it a firm knock, and then stepped back, rather than allowing God to carry us the rest of the way. The concert began with the lovely Geistliches Lied, Op. 30 (Song of the Spirit), here performed by four-part chorus and organ. In the Four Songs for Women’s Chorus, Two Horns, and Harp, Op. 17, actually written four years later, the high sopranos and low altos seemed from different planets; the sopranos sounded round, warm, and angelic; the altos, thinner and a bit edgy. My husband described the performance as balm applied to the forehead, but I found the lack of vocal consonance disturbing. Such are the ways of the world. MTT’s comprehension of text was especially apparent at the end of “Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang” (The sound of the harp is full of love and longing). There, Robert Ward and Jonathan Ring somehow managed to make their horns wail, as the heavenly sopranos joined Douglas Rioth’s harp in offering consolation. Marvelous.