Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (A German Requiem) is one of the monumental works in the choral literature. Most choral societies have a shy at it regularly and most church choirs of any size have warbled through the fourth movement, Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely is they dwelling place).But in the hands of a major performing organization, it is a whole different piece. So the performances that opened on Thursday evening at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center with the Dallas Symphony and Chorus, under the sensitive baton of Jaap van Zweden, are events to be savored.
Van Zweden took a mile-high view of the piece while still carefully crafting every detail. He started it from nowhere and then built the entire work to a magnificent climax on the words Tod, wo ist dein Stachel? Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg? (Which means “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” from I Corinthians).
These lines are the message of the entire work. In all of the performances I have heard of this piece, this moment has never been so clearly underlined. Van Zweden brilliantly did this by terracing his dynamics and tempi with this single goal in mind from the very beginning. Brahms takes a humanist view and purposely avoided dogma about sin, a final accounting and dreadful punishment. His is a Requiem of hope, meant to comfort the living, and it was a revelation to see Brahms’ message so clearly presented.
Van Zweden took a no-nonsense approach, coming in well under the timing of some other performances. While this was a highly nuanced reading, rubato (give and take in the tempo) was kept to a minimum. He knew where he was going and permitted few delays in getting there. He kept the chorus at the forefront and the orchestra underneath, never exceeding its job as accompaniment. Except for the occasional solo line, he also kept the orchestral balance as a homogenized sound. Even the Lay Family Concert Organ, under the control of Mary Preston, reinforced the texture without calling attention to itself.
Soprano Laura Aikin and baritone Russell Braun were perfect choices. Aikin has the ability to spin the lovely floating phrases that this work requires. Braun’s deep, resonant baritone had authority without being overpowering. Both singers resisted the temptation to sound operatic.
Van Zweden’s newfound reserve on the podium served him well. His tendency to mirror his hands was more noticeable than in another recent performance, but his beat was expressive and communicative nevertheless. There was the occasional blooper here and there, occasionally the chorus and orchestra had a different idea of the location of the center of the pitch, and the sopranos sometimes sounded less burnished than the rest of the chorus, but these minor incidents just served to remind the listener that it was mere humans performing such divine music.