Chen Reiss (soprano)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (baritone)
Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)
This was an excellent performance and not merely a ‘performance’, for it partook in the backward- and forward-looking spirit of Brahms’s work. There are few if any conductors alive so steeped in German tradition – again in both a backward- and forward-looking way – as Daniel Barenboim; likewise for the Staatskapelle Berlin when it comes to orchestras. Equally important was the outstanding contribution of the chorus, superbly trained by Eberhard Friedrich; even if I wished to do so, I could not find a single fault with its performance.
The opening of the first chorus was wonderfully slow, instantly banishing memories of a precipitate opening from Lorin Maazel and the Philharmonia last summer. A slow tempo is worse than useless if the musical line cannot be maintained but there was no question of that here, Barenboim evoking his hero Furtwängler both in that respect and in his flexibility. For this was to be a more Romantic vision than that of the awe-inspiring objectivity of a Klemperer. Rich, variegated lower strings prepared the way for an impeccably honed choral response, equally clear in words and line. The consolation of flute and oboe was heard for the first time, but far from the last, leading to a magnificent swell in the choral sound. After the unforgettable words from the Beatitudes (‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen, den sie sollen getröstet werden’ – ‘Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted’) the tears from the psalmist, here depicted on the harp with a pictorialism unusual for Brahms, were promised a joyful reaping, Barenboim employing acutely judged accelerando and crescendo to underline that joy on the word ‘Freuden’.
An important relationship between consolation and joy had therefore been set up, but it required the following movement to remind us of the third point in the theological triangle: death. A soft-grained orchestral introduction proved both dark and transparent, just as Brahms’s orchestral writing should sound, though less often does. The solemn onward tread was underpinned by implacable kettledrums. Barenboim took great care – as one could both see and hear – to bring out the ominous yet Romantically beautiful call of the horns, prior to the fearsome reprise of the material reminding us that all flesh is as grass. When consolation followed, the harps were once again unusually and fruitfully – ‘auf die köstliche Frucht der Erde’ – prominent. The return to the opening material proved terrifying in its cumulative power but death, even here, was not to triumph. For ‘The ransomed of the Lord shall return,’ and it came to pass, a triumph that grew very much out of the preceding material, with a well-nigh Beethovenian understanding of joy (the ‘Freude’ underlined on both occasions by a well-judged ritardando). This, one might say, was an agnostic’s ode to joy, ending in warm serenity.
Hanno Müller-Brachmann made his first appearance in the third movement, ‘Herr, lehre doch mich’. As attentive to the words as to the musical line, he proved an ideal soloist, imparting real meance to the words ‘sie sammeln und wissen nicht, wer es kriegen wird’ (‘he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them’). A rare blemish occurred with a moment of orchestral unsteadiness immediately following but the hope of the psalmist (‘Ich hoffe auf Dich’) swiftly won out. The ensuing victory was appropriately hard won, almost a kind of musical purgatory, though Brahms would doubtless have recoiled from such an idea. And so, the way was prepared for the celebrated consolation of ‘Wie lieblich sind Deine Wohnungen’. This was lovely (lieblich) indeed, especially in the sweetness of the violins and the choral singing, though Barenboim wisely withstood any temptation to wallow. Chen Reiss did not seem to me as strong a soloist as Müller-Brachmann. Placed behind but above the orchestra, at the front of the chorus, she exhibited a silvery, often touching tone, but the quality of her diction paled beside his. The orchestral solos – flute, violin, and ‘’cello – exhibited rather more consoling warmth, although perhaps that was the point, if she were an angelic intermediary. Except, in Brahms’s humanistic universe, with whom could she mediate? At any rate, she was impressive in making her voice carry above orchestra and chorus, even when singing piano.
It is in the penultimate movement that all the conflicts are resolved. Müller-Brachmann once again showed himself an exemplary soloist, akin to a baritonal Bachian Evangelist. ‘Behold, I shew you a mystery,’ and he truly did. The moment of ‘change’, that twinkling of an eye, was truly felt as he sang the word ‘verwandelt’. All hell – or heaven? – broke loose from the chorus and orchestra as the trumpet was sounded (here, of course, on account of Luther’s translation, on trombone). Choral accusations against death and the grace were furiously hurled prior to the sounding of an extremely hard-won victory. Once again, this was all the more powerful for growing out of what had come before, cumulative power in tandem with contrapuntal clarity, each choral entry clearly marked. Beethovenian struggle was fused with Handelian grandeur and an apotheosis of Schützian trombones. Thereafter, it was left to Brahms once again to console, in the final movement. The presence of sweet violins and a fuller choral sound reminded us that his design is not quite cyclical; we stand a little further on than we did before. Those trombones intoned something as if from another world: ‘Ja, der Geist spricht’ (‘Yea, saith the Spirit’), followed by ineffably beautiful Benedictus-like contributions from oboe and flute. A final, magical orchestral wash of sound prepared us for the final ‘selig’ (‘blessed’). The nature of our consolation may be profoundly uncertain here but it is no less real for that.