IN: Reviews

Sorrow and Comfort at Symphony Hall


The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey conducting, blessed its audience with Bach and Brahms, aided and abetted by Rosemary Joshua and Bryn Terfel. Thursday’s astute pairing, showcasing fine musicianship, was a memorable evening in Symphony Hall.

J. S. Bach’s Cantata no. 82, “Ich habe genug,” with Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), John Ferrillo (solo oboe) and a chamber orchestra of BSO musicians took up the entire first half. In five sections, this cantata begins and ends with arias, interspersed with recitatives, and sets to music the prayer of Simeon known in Latin as Nunc dimittis. (I repeat this for the other poor souls who, like I, are slow to make this connection.) Tovey conducted by hand, not baton, in this smaller and more intimate ensemble; Terfel sang from downstage and Ferrillo sat atop the soloist’s platform. The orchestra’s smaller organ was centered in the ensemble. Kudos go to Ferrillo for a sensitive and elegiac reading. Terfel brought his large, powerful voice which filled Symphony Hall while managing to produce pianissimos which likewise penetrated to the distant regions. Cellist Martha Babcock, along with the organist and (in the final aria) Edwin Barker, double bass, took the basso continuo line and engaged in a beautiful and skillful collaboration; the walking bass line in the final aria was a masterpiece of phrasing, dynamic, and fine gradations of sound.

(Why the BSO does not list its keyboard players in the program is a recurring puzzle to me; it seems highly disrespectful to the musicians and it leaves reviewers unable to credit the talent and skill of those who contribute to our delight. [According to management, last night John Finney played continuo and grand orgue.] I beseech the administration of the BSO to do the honorable thing and list them in the roster printed in each program.)

Boston is a locus for early music practitioners and we are accustomed to hearing Bach sung by such specialists. Considering his power and operatic projection, Terfel’s is not an early music voice. Far from being a hindrance, this is a boon for performances where early music is presented in modern, large-scale venues. His mastery of the part and musicianship are unquestionable; the merits of his voice are manifold. I enjoyed this Bach as a reminder of the master’s ability to transcend any limitations of its place in time.

Johannes Brahms, Ein Deutsches Requiem, op. 45, with the amassed forces of the full Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Terfel and Rosemary Joshua (soprano), vocal soloists provided the bulk of this concert. Throughout this seven-movement work, chorus and orchestra were responsive to Tovey, who led them easily and with assuredness. The reading was rich in detail, carefully considered, and executed with passion. Opening with rich lamentation the music quickly accedes to the force inherent in numerous musicians assembled on stage, and the opening text of “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” became a study in the profundity of mourning. The second movement, “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras,” is moving, powerful music; this sublime performance let that show forth. The third movement, “Herr, lehre doch mich,” showcased Terfel in a vocal role that has much in common with the earlier Bach cantata, and that was strong and forceful, with an attentive chorus collaborating then taking the lead in the fugato on “Der Gerechten Seelen.” Finally in the fifth movement, “Ihr habt nun traurigkeit,” we heard Rosemary Joshua; her dark and full voice projected throughout Symphony Hall and was easily heard above the orchestra without ever sounding forced. Here, too, we heard again an admirable solo by cellist Martha Babcock. Terfel returned in the sixth movement, “Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt,” offering another intense and focused performance (although an apparent subito sforzando caught me by surprise). This penultimate movement seems the emotional peak of the work, and at least one audience member was deceived into premature applause; Brahms does not end on this Sanctus-like movement but continues with a gentler final movement that returns us all to a state of acceptance and peace.

For his “secular requiem” Brahms requires a strong coterie of instrumentalists and singers and taxes the soloists who spend more time sitting on stage than singing; especially the soprano must wait for about an hour before her moment. Joshua seemed physically nervous, yet it was not audible in her voice. Based on last night’s performance, she has no need to sweat this music and hopefully will enjoy the remainder of this run and return to Boston and grace us with another performance next season.

BSO,-Tanglewood-Fesrival-Chorus, Rosemary-Joshua,-Bramwell-Tovey,-Bryn-Terfel-(Hilary-Scott)_2
BSO, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Rosemary Joshua, Bill Cutter, Bramwell Tovey, Bryn Terfel (Hilary Scott photo)

The choral part here is a weighty one. In place of titulaire John Oliver, Bill Cutter prepared the Tanglewood Festival Chorus to exacting standards. There was much praiseworthy singing throughout the Requiem. Which makes my criticism all the more trenchant. Brahms’s selection of texts begins and ends with a beatitude, a quieter and more introspective passage than the forte moments of anguish heard elsewhere in this composition. Sadly the singers stumbled; because of sloppy entrances and placement of esses, Selig sind sounded excessively sibilant (moreso than this sentence). Entrances elsewhere were crisp and clean. Pity; this marred an otherwise outstanding demonstration of their prowess and ownership of the music. Hopefully the chorus will be more attentive in the rest of this run and subsequent performances will slough off the chthonic realm to remain ensconced in the heights of the empyrean.

Lastly, I could not help thinking of Rafael Frühbeck. This was the last concert the late conductor had scheduled with the BSO. Did he intend it as a memorial? It served the role very well for me.

This program repeats Friday afternoon and Saturday night.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.


10 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. The chorus was prepared by Bill Cutter, which is why he is in the photo. Although I may be biased since I’m in the TFC (and also in the photo, but not identified), I think he has done a marvelous job with us this week. Any extraneous sibilant entrances are our responsibility.

    Comment by Bruce Kozuma — October 24, 2014 at 7:39 pm

  2. Just a thought from this TFC member: If the writer heard excessive sibilance in ONLY the ubiquitous “seelig sind” with everywhere else crisp and clean, is it possible that he is not familiar with the German pronunciation of the final “g” in “seelig” (a gentle, soft “ch” sound, as in “ich”) ? In a legato, espressivo phrase, this may come across to him as an issue with “placement of esses.”

    Comment by Karen Wilcox — October 25, 2014 at 12:04 pm

  3. There are no “s” sounds in “seelig” and “sind,” surely, any more than there is an “s” sound in “surely”? Those initial esses in German are pronounced as “Z”s, aren’t they? There should be no “s” problem among the singers if their leader coached them in the pronunciation of the German text.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — October 25, 2014 at 11:16 pm

  4. The BSO, TFC and Terfel (as Elijah?) have laid one down for the ages. Drama, power, subtlety, consolation–all in full amplitude and hi def. And I did not hear any exaggerated or misaligned sibilants on Saturday night. The choristers knew their German–there was a clear distinction between the esses in zayligk znnd and those in “Denn alles Fleisch is wie das Gras.” Their articulation was immer klar and never forced. But what a sound they produced. Maybe some of the courage and amplitude came from the divided rather than hashed seating.

    And it was great to hear the quick and profound 32ft. Violone stop providing an underpinning.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 25, 2014 at 11:23 pm

  5. There is no “s” sound in “surely” ? I know several Messiah recordings that provide contrary evidence.

    I didn’t note any super-sibilance, and if there was any, then it’s Brahms’ fault for making his Requiem so Deutsches. In Latin you don’t run into these problems; it has many advantages for Requiems, being a dead language and all. Nevertheless a great range of sound was achieved, combining great weight and power with lightness and clarity where required. The combination of vehemence and lyricism in a single voice in the second movement reminded me of Mahler. I wonder if he ever conducted it. And I agree with Lee; I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the SH organ used to such effect. And now I know the name of the stop !

    However my favorite part of the program was the orchestral passages of the cantata. Terfel sang well, but very loudly, and more or less drowned out the (blessedly) small orchestra from where I was sitting, so I kept waiting for him to stop so I could commune with unmediated beauty.

    Comment by SamW — October 26, 2014 at 10:49 am

  6. My goodness, suddenly everyone’s a diction expert! I feel quite sure my esteemed colleague, Mr Cutter was fully in command of the proceedings.

    Comment by Michael Beattie — October 26, 2014 at 2:22 pm

  7. Over the air it was quite as described (no sibilance problem Sat night so far as I could hear) including Terfel’s sometimes undue dominance.

    Comment by David Moran — October 26, 2014 at 5:03 pm

  8. Reading this review and its attendant commentary, plus the review of the NE Philharmonic by Mark DeVoto, reinforces what a great city of classical music we have in Boston. So far, my spouse and I have heard three concerts in cities on the Danube, and none meets our standards. Then there’s the tourist evenings, like the one on board last night,featuring cutesy and ill-sung performances of arias from — you can guess — Papageno and Papagena, etc.

    So, dear readers, continue to point out lapses and misinterpretations in performances, or pieces that do not measure up, but praise whatever deity you honor for living where we do.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — October 27, 2014 at 2:37 am

  9. Amen…

    Comment by nimitta — October 27, 2014 at 11:58 am

  10. Anyone would like to complain about the speed in closing of the 2nd movement?

    Yes, in reality, if Jesus were to come back to the world with joy, people would be in chaos, rushing to the street and forgetting about law and order (that is what people do). However, in art, everything is still law and order with graceful joy. I think that is the way this music is intended.

    The gear was shifted too much for this music and it did create some chaos.

    Other movements had this issue too.

    Comment by Thorsten — October 27, 2014 at 8:51 pm

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