Brahms, Strauss, Danielpour, and Saint-Saëns

Brahms, Strauss, Danielpour, and Saint-Saëns: Gerard Schwarz (conductor), Seattle Symphony, Seattle Symphony Chorale, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 3.4.2011 (BJ)

This was a program that ranged from great Classical music at the beginning to sonic spectacular at the end, with a work that falls between those categories appropriately placed in the middle. The sonics of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra and Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 were indeed spectacularly realized by the Seattle Symphony and its Chorale. Yet it was the cool classicism of Brahms’s Schicksalslied that made, if not the most dazzling, nevertheless the deepest impression.

I call Brahms’s music Classical because I find the frequent labeling of this composer as a Romantic inaccurate. Brahms looked at life, and the world, squarely, without the tendency toward ego-inflation and fantasizing that is characteristic of the romantics. Nowhere is his unblinking realism more clearly evident than in this superb setting of a powerfully disturbing poem by that arch-Romantic Hölderlin. After turning the poet’s picture of the bliss of the Olympic gods into the most rapturously beautiful music, and complementing the portrayal of humanity’s contrasting ills that follows with apt dramatic emphasis, Brahms supplements the two-part structure of the poem by bringing back the opening music, somewhat shortened, and lightened in texture, but just as idyllic as before.

I do not think Brahms was second-guessing Hölderlin and promising his human listeners the consoling prospect of an afterlife in Heaven. That would not reflect the rationalistic, agnostic person we know him to have been. With this beautiful conclusion, he is telling us, rather, that Heaven is still there; it’s just that we don’t get to go there.

Sensitively led by Gerard Schwarz, the orchestra captured the chastely heart-catching beauty of the music to perfection, and the Seattle Symphony Chorale showed yet again that it has become a force to reckon with under Joseph Crnko’s inspiring leadership. The orchestral playing, supplemented by Joseph Adam’s contribution on Benaroya’s well-equipped organ, was splendid too in the Strauss and Saint-Saëns works.

It would have been helpful for listener