Warmth and Sensitivity in Haitink’s German Requiem

SwitzerlandSwitzerland BrahmsTonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Bernard Haitink (conductor), Camilla Tilling (soprano), Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Zürcher Sing-Akademie (chorusmaster Tim Brown) Tonhalle, Zurich, 15.1.16. (JR)

Brahms: German Requiem

Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem is not a religious work; it is sacred but not liturgical, based on Brahms’ humanist principles. The texts are taken from the Bible, but the Lord is mentioned only very occasionally, and Christ not at all. And, as its title makes clear, it’s written in German. Perhaps for all those reasons I warm to the work, in preference to more overtly religious works or a Bach Passion.

George Bernard Shaw didn’t like the Requiem; he described it as a work that could only have come “from the establishment of a first-class undertaker”. I know what he means, the piece is certainly sombre; it was written shortly after Brahms’ mother’s death. Schumann had also recently died. Shaw must have heard a turgid performance. However, with fine forces and German mother tongues – as in this performance, the piece can impress with its warmth and sensitivity.

Haitink had some health scares some long while ago, I suspect he did not have a pacemaker fitted but rather an internal metronome. He is a master at delivering an even, measured beat, never wavering, never changing gear – he draws on decades of experience with the work. His even tempi serve the work well, but the speeds he chooses are invariably on the slow (some say, tedious) side. That’s his view of the work, it hasn’t changed over 40 years –his 1981 DG recording with the Vienna Philharmonic did elicit some criticism for the slow speeds.

Haitink takes the first two pieces very slowly; the hushed, solemn beginning “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” makes it challenging for the choir, but it made it all the more moving. Brahms’ metronome markings indicate the first piece should be taken quite a bit faster than the second, but Haitink prefers both similarly weighty.

The chorus, the admirable Zürcher Sing-Akademie, Switzerland’s only professional choir (boosted for this concert by some fine amateurs), trained by ex-Clare College Cambridge Music Director Tim Brown, were simply magnificent. They have to sing for most of the Requiem; they showed no sign of tiring (though this was the first of three performances of the work). Their diction, vigour, entries, intonation were all spot-on. I was particularly taken by the rich sound of the altos and some strong tenors (despite their relative small number). Basses provided a firm fundament and sopranos’ top notes were uniformly glorious.

Christian Gerhaher, luxury casting, almost stole the show from the chorus with his glowing tone; he does not have that much to sing (though more than the soprano soloist). His expressionism and diction were impossible to surpass, he was mesmeric. He took master-classes from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – now it’s Gerhaher who gives the master-classes. Each word carried meaning, as in “Herr, lehre doch mich”, a very touching rendition, I expected no less of a singer of this calibre.

Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling seems to be one of Haitink’s current favourite soloists, but on this performance I have to wonder why. She started nervously with brittle fragility (I’ll admit it’s a treacherous solo) and only improved slowly. I would say her voice which lacks creaminess may be more suited to Grieg, Swedish songs and brighter, more crystalline roles.

The orchestra was on good form, but not as good as last week in Beethoven. There was some untidiness on final notes indicating a shortage of orchestral rehearsal. The core of the woodwind were however, as always, impressive, Simon Fuchs (oboe), Matvey Demin (flute) and Mike Reid (clarinet).

This was an understated but quality performance. Haitink does not jump onto the podium to take individual acclamation (he cannot jump any more, for one thing), his natural humility and musicality had served the splendour of the work well.

We left the hall, into the gently falling snow, to make our way to our “liebliche Wohnungen”.

John Rhodes

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