If you’re an orchestra in bankruptcy, programming a series of requiems for the dead might not telegraph the most reassuring message. Yet Yannick Nézet-Séguin has hit on something in this repertoire thread leading up to his official start in 10 months as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s next music director.
Requiems are event pieces, drawing big crowds and rivers of emotion. Last season the young conductor led the Mozart/Süssmayr Requiem. He’s in town now for Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, a canny choice given current circumstances. Other requiems are services for the dead (comforting though the music may be). The Brahms is a salve for survivors.
How can one not take comfort in a piece that flouts the concept of finality?
“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
Instead of the usual prescribed text, Brahms cobbles together an economical series of biblical excerpts. He establishes a comfort level for the secularist. There is no day of judgment. Christ is never mentioned specifically.
More viscerally, however, the universality is in the music — Brahms’ glorious insistence on crafting a piece every bit as orchestral as vocal, and how, hung on a relatively spare text, the vocal writing seems to spring from emotions elemental to humanity.
Relationships between the text and music abound, and in Thursday night’s concert baritone soloist Matthias Goerne married them vividly. With finely detailed articulation, he drew a full hall of listeners into a sphere of quiet urgency. Soprano Dorothea Röschmann was steady, but couldn’t establish the same rapport from her perch in the chorus.
Large in numbers, the Westminster Symphonic Choir had the firepower aspect of the job covered, though you might have wished for more subtlety in places. The opening proffers one of the most magical concepts in the standard repertoire: that the pulsing bass notes of the orchestra represent all that is earthy, and the voices, when they enter with “Blessed are they that mourn,” are in touch with something Beyond. The Westminster choristers are to be applauded for their efforts, but a somewhat thin and youthful sound wasn’t quite what you wanted for this moment.
The voices weren’t, in any case, the equal to the orchestra, whose sound was spun through with gold, from principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales and principal oboist Richard Woodhams. Nézet-Séguin once again proved a conductor interested more in sweep than detail. His sense of momentum — the great fugue of the third movement over a low “D” pedal point, for instance — was full of fire. Deeper interpretation, however, eluded him.
What was the point in pairing the Brahms with Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550? In a post-concert chat with admirers in the Kimmel lobby, Nézet-Séguin said he subscribed to the idea that, if Mozart had lived into Brahms’ time, he could have evolved, stylistically, to the point of Brahms in his Requiem. Maybe. But if any revelations emerged from this performance they concerned venue more than interpretation. The rehabilitated Verizon Hall — in this piece, from my seat in the first tier — was paradise. The ensemble had levels of presence and clarity it has never had.
Verizon on this night generated something else new: pleasant reverberation. After a decade of acoustical fog, this is an extremely heartening development. An afterlife for orchestral sound, in all its various meanings, may be at hand.