in: Reviews

October 7, 2016

Widmann and Brahms Obsess Over Death

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Last week composer Jörg Widmann, told me that “putting together programs is also a form of composing. To hear two different musical languages in one concert—that’s exciting for the audience.” The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s pairing of Widmann’s Trauermarsch (Funeral March), for Piano and Orchestra and Brahms’s A German Requiem on Thursday presented us with not only two different musical languages, but also with two different modes of remembrance. While Widmann brought a fresh and engaging new voice to us, a superlative performance of Brahms reminded us that elegy and mourning can take many musical forms.

During our phone call, Widmann spoke about what he wanted audiences in Boston to know prior to hearing his new work, a co-commission by the Berlin Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and Toronto Symphony. His challenging reply: “They need to listen to a new work as simply music, and not as being new music, while still understanding that it is presented in the contemporary language of our time… I would be happy if they would just sit there and be surprised by it”.

Noting the warm reception his funeral march had in Berlin, Widmann expressed regret that he couldn’t attend the Boston premiere, citing his current work on a new oratorio for three choirs as well as other commitments, some as clarinetist. Feeling “great warmth” for the Boston Symphony, Widmann emphasized what an honor it was for his works to be programmed by the venerable institution he has so admired since childhood; his first cassette tape was a BSO recording. He also acknowledged the honor of pairing his piece with A German Requiem, which Widmann called a “moving and deeply human work”.

Widmann is every bit the renaissance man: he is a composer, conductor and performer rather in the style of an 18th-century or early 19th-century composer: “As a clarinetist and also a conductor, I tour and am on stage most nights. It is very natural for these three things to interact.” In our discussion of Trauermarsch, Widmann spoke about writing for particular ensembles and musicians: “Orchestras, choirs and individual soloists all have unique personalities, and these unique personalities makes a difference, the piece will be different every time. For Yefim (Bronfman), I thought of his intellect, energy and power.”

Scored for solo piano and symphony orchestra (including at my count, 33 percussion instruments played by three percussionists), the expansive work evolves from a plaintive nucleus from the solo piano to a sprawling and tremendous happening that challenges the full range of sounds available from one ensemble. Piano soloist Bronfman realized the sparse opening with a delicately assured touch. The affect he produced from the piano widened with the unfolding harmonic textures.

Make no mistake, despite the fragmented and unassuming beginnings, this is virtuoso undertaking for both piano and orchestra. Violinist Tamara Smirnova’s impressive and complex solos managed to be heard over the mælstrom of sound. Extended techniques, not only in the percussion section but in the strings added to the turbulent emotional content, with the col legno heard in the celli acting as a frequent and morbid reminder of the march’s purpose. In some of the broader moments of anguished grandeur, the lower register of the piano was covered by the freneticism of the orchestra. After a moment of respite, a surprisingly gentle vocalise-like moment in the piano again showed Bronfman’s ability to bring out delicate and contemplative passages amidst a soon-to-be-engulfing orchestra.

Trauermarsch is a study in juxtapositions. During the first notes, the listener is drawn into a level of introspection that is only briefly revisited, while the bulk of the work cries in agony for solace. Seeming to respond to Bronfman, Andris Nelsons led the orchestra through this panoply of emotions with a reined-in power. The distinct and unusual voices came out cleanly. This was the only time Boston has heard Widmann since his Hunt Quartet and his clarinet playing featured at the Goethe-Institut Boston in 2013 [reviewed here]. After the success last night, I look forward to more.

After last night’s intermission, The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, expertly prepared by Lidiya Yankovskaya, brought out this humanism. From the opening “Selig sind…”, the propulsive certainty of faith and hope kept growing. This nuanced take included polished solos from baritone Thomas Hampson and soprano Camilla Tilling. The special qualities are rather difficult to quantify; it goes beyond great musicians making great music. Rather, there was a meditative quality to the more circumspect passages. While the first half of the fourth movement was glorious, the true range of the TFC emerged in the sixth movement, “Oh death where is thy sting?” where the full power and force of this mighty chorus came into full cry. Any choir can sing loudly, but even in the most fortissimo passages, this choir enunciated with precision and control, yet they never lost sight of the narrative.

Brahms’s A German Requiem is very much the product of enlightenment, mid-19th-century Germany. In the literature then, as now, Brahms is painted as the third member of the German musical Trinity following on a cultural lineage established by J. S. Bach and developed by Beethoven. It is Brahms, and not Wagner, critics (such as Botstein) argue who completes this cultural and ideological trifecta. Brahms’s treatment of the Requiem genre speaks not only to the Lutheran and nationalistic roots of German culture, but the growing role of individualism and humanism as part of Enlightenment philosophy.

Brahms’s position on the role of the mourner and deceased also presents an interesting departure from previously held Requiem conventions. A German Requiem seeks to comfort the living, and does not, as was previously traditional, plead with God to protect the soul of the deceased and grant it safe passage to heaven. This focus on the living, on the act of bereavement and process of mourning is another example of Brahms reflecting his cultural context. Despite the stronghold that religion still had in the 19th century, Enlightenment sought to make room for the individual within a community. Thus an interesting paradox was emerging: Group prayer in the Lutheran church served dual purpose, as did solo prayer. For the first time, the individual had some sense of self determination and responsibility, in conjunction with his place in the community. The 1860s German response to death insured the comfort of the living, whilst allowing for grief.

Last night, orchestra and choir mirrored the universality of A German Requiem. They played and sang as one, with the choir standing in hashed formation and singing from scores. (I had previously seen them perform it from memory, but this made no difference to the sound, or their responsiveness to the conductor; if anything, last night sounded even more assured a performance than my previous experience of them). The basses in particular produced a rich tone with perfectly matched vowels. A cappella moments from all sections were elegantly rounded.

The second movement again brought Nelsons into the role of musical sorcerer, empowering the orchestra to show the dramatic shifts between light and dark, sweetness and longing. Baritone Thomas Hampson’s solo in the third movement brought pathos that captured the meaning of the text “Surely every man walks in a vain show…” which he sang with a rich timbre as if in a Lied. His big, burnished voice remained nicely controlled, but ready to explode later in a stunning display of virtuosity in the sixth movement.

Camila Tilling contmeplates while Andris Nelsons conducts and Thomas Hampson sings (Winslow Townson photo)

Camila Tilling contemplates while Andris Nelsons conducts and Thomas Hampson sings (Winslow Townson photo)

In the fourth movement, TFC refracted the lush sounds of the strings. It can be so tempting to be self-indulgent here, but Nelsons kept a crisp tempo throughout without sacrificing the overall dramatic arc. The articulations showed thoughtful attention to detail; the tenors shone. Camilla Tilling’s solo in the fifth movement captured the composer’s melodic sorrow with grace in an elegant, dignified reading of the quasi-operatic section. Her voice soared above the orchestra as she personified the progression from sorrow to comfort.

The sixth movement, ever the test for orchestra and chorus, was stirring and robust, with an energetic Nelsons passing his baton from one hand to the other. I did detect a moment of unsettled tempo as we entered the “Herr, du bist würdig zu nehmen Preis und Ehre und Kraft” between altos and orchestra but it constituted a momentary lapse. The finale opened with a luxurious oboe solo and a nicely controlled soprano section. Deep catharsis and repose ensued.

Widmann’s Trauermarsch invited us into a new sound world and Requiem reflected a beloved work in a new light. One pondered through the flickering sorrows: perhaps there is musical life after death.

Georgia Luikens is a violinist who holds undergraduate degrees in music and English literature from the University of New South Wales. She has a Masters in musicology from Brandeis University where she is a doctoral candidate.

3 Comments

  1. It was notable that Yankovskaya/Nelsons intermingled the sections of the chorus but not enough to mask the treble-left, bass-right effect.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — October 8, 2016 at 9:07 am

  2. Listening to the Widmann tonight, I was sure that the first ten minutes expansively referenced and responded to the first movement of the Mahler 9th, and that the rest of the piece similarly referenced other one or two well-known symphonies (one by Prokofiev, I thought). But since the reviewer didn’t mention this, nor did the note in the concert program (and since I am no musicologist) I am doubting myself. Can anyone comment on the possible references?

    Comment by Vijay S — October 8, 2016 at 10:57 pm

  3. anyone else find the Brahms a little too slow?

    Comment by max — October 12, 2016 at 5:07 am

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