Transcendent Brahms German Requiem

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Brahms: Rachel Jeanne Hall (soprano), Brian Keith Johnson (baritone), Canton Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Britt Cooper (conductor), Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umststattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, 16.2.2014 (TW)

Mozart: Ave verum corpus (1791)
Brahms: German Requiem (1868)

In celebration of its 30th anniversary, the Canton Symphony Chorus joined the Canton Symphony Orchestra on February 16 for the Masterworks Series concert at Umstattd Hall. Augmented by the Malone University Chorus, the combined vocal ensemble, conducted by Chorus Director Britt Cooper, gave a beautiful account of Mozart’s brief motet, Ave verum corpus (Hail True Body). Hushed and ethereal, the inspiring performance set the tone for the more dramatically expansive Brahms German Requiem that followed, conducted by Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann.

 Unlike the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead, this requiem eschewed the blunt Biblical language of a wrathful God dispensing the fire and brimstone of the Last Judgment. Brahms composed it more in the fashion of an oratorio in seven movements, all with Old and New Testament texts intended to comfort the living rather than warn the dead. Conceptually, the music traces a steady transformation of dark mortality into the light of divine joy.

Happily, the chorus was as radiant as the orchestra was powerful. Both ensembles were showed an uncanny manifestation of unified purpose, turning the work’s message of solace and hope into a soaring, visceral experience.

The emotional thrust takes on especially poignant and dramatic dimensions in solo passages for baritone (third and sixth movements) and soprano (fifth movement). The singing by both guest artists—Brian Keith Johnson and Rachel Jeanne Hall—was wholly impressive.

At the end of the third movement there is a breathtaking crescendo—an orchestral and choral swelling of affirmation—as Johnson solemnly intoned, “Nun, Herr, wess soil ich mich trösten? (And now, Lord, what is my hope?),” followed by the stirring response, “Ich hoffe auf dich (My hope is in Thee).” Brahms added the fifth movement as a remembrance of his beloved mother, who died in 1865. The text for the soprano soloist is from Isaiah, promising the bereaved child the kind of comfort that a mother would offer. Befitting the image, Hall’s achingly sweet soprano tonality, warm and full, was a moving embodiment of maternal consolation.

In its day, this Brahms masterpiece was soundly skewered by many critics on dogmatic, technical and philosophical grounds. Wagner, particularly contemptuous of Brahms’s desire that the work be regarded as a wholly German one, written for all of Germany, once quipped that when his own generation passed, “…we will want no German Requiem to be played on our ashes.”

This performance illuminated Brahms’ own description of the work as a “human” requiem. It is, after all, unequivocally a work for the ages, presented here with compelling authority and palpably amazing grace.

Tom Wachunas