at Orchestra Hall

September 19

The requiem mass, a sacred Catholic ritual, is also a hallowed musical genre that has challenged generations of composers to evoke moods suitable to the funereal occasion it commemorates and to their own age. Over the years, as the center of music making has shifted from the church to the concert hall, the requiem has taken on a richer cast, free of the piety and sentimentality dictated by the liturgical tradition. Composers in the 19th century, in fact, made it a vehicle for the idiosyncratic expression of intense grief and protestation. Brahms’s A German Requiem, featured in the Chicago Symphony’s season-opening concerts, is a towering, ambitious example of the form.

The text of the Catholic Mass for the Dead departs from that of a regular mass in two crucial ways. It begins with an exhortative Requiem Aeternam (“Rest eternal”), but it omits the Gloria and Credo and adds a penitent Dies Irae. As with all works for religious ceremonies, setting it to music posed an ideological dilemma for the composer. “Was the music there to glorify the mass or to illustrate its words? Is the function of music expressive or celebrative?” as musicologist Charles Rosen has phrased it. Renaissance masters like Palestrina tried to work around the church’s orthodox music style, though their made-to-order pieces were inevitably weakened by serving the church’s formulas. But by Mozart’s time composers had begun to favor individual expression: the arias and orchestration in his sublime (and unfinished) Requiem border on the floridly operatic.

The famous requiems that followed–by Berlioz, Faure, Dvorak–are deeply felt personal statements in which luxuriant instrumental color reinforces compassionate singing. Verdi’s entry, commemorating the deaths of Rossini and the Italian poet and novelist Manzoni, carries the genre to a theatrical height. His delirious, ferocious paean is at once impulsive and sincere–encapsulating the Latin high spirit. By contrast Brahms’s quintessentially German work, composed five years earlier, in 1868, is quieter, moodier, guilt-ridden and ruminative. Yet it’s just as affecting and noble–perhaps too noble.

When George Bernard Shaw snidely remarked that listening to this requiem was a sacrifice that should be asked of a man only once in his life, he was complaining about the hushed reverential tone that permeates this vast work. He exaggerated, of course. The requiem does meander quite a bit, and its earnestness can be cloying. But given a vigorous, shapely performance, its emotional power is undeniable. After all, for Brahms, who did not believe in life after death, A German Requiem was clearly a loving memorial to two of the seminal influences on his life and career: his mother and Robert Schumann, his mentor. Its text is in German; the verses, carefully chosen from his childhood Bible, comment obliquely on the nurturing strength of motherhood and friendship.

The requiem was also Brahms’s first major choral and orchestral work. A veritable compendium of technical effects, it is filled with moments of genuine beauty and resonance. Four of its seven sections call for solo chorus. In the moody, tour-de-force second section, “Denn alles Fleisch,” the chorus, accompanied by a slow but insistent drumbeat, begins a dirge–indicating the inexorable march of time and fate. The gloom is suddenly lifted more than halfway through, as the text turns to: “But the word of the Lord endureth forever.” Then somberness returns, only to be dispelled by the sound of horns and trumpets. Characteristically, Brahms ends this section (and the piece itself) on a meditative, consoling note. After the lengthy choral introduction of the first and second sections, the work’s autobiographical nature becomes obvious. The baritone soloist (Brahms himself?) enters, beseeching “And now, Lord, what is my hope?” Two movements later, the soprano (Brahms’s mother?) is introduced, a soothing presence offering comfort.

The performance I heard last Saturday evening showed both the orchestra and maestro Daniel Barenboim in top form. The playing was clean, brilliant, and emphatic, accentuating the requiem’s epic quality without sacrificing too much of its confiding intimacy. (Brahms’s Tragic Overture, which opened the concert, was also nicely presented, but a bit too lackadaisical for my taste.) Thomas Hampson, a baritone whose star is on the rise, was surprisingly pallid in his delivery, however. He sounded sweet but lacked conviction. Soprano Edith Wiens, on the other hand, was appropriately rapturous and ethereal. The evening really belonged to the Chicago Symphony Chorus, however, who sang with fervor and becoming spontaneity. Their flawless, stirring performance capped the 35-year CSO career of Margaret Hillis, the redoubtable choirmaster who formally retires this season. The recording of this German Requiem, to be released by Erato next year, is likely to be a lasting testament to her talent.


at Ravinia

August 27

One of the best concerts at Ravinia this summer did not draw the kind of crowd the marquee warranted. The program wasn’t to blame: an all-Mozart affair aimed to please conservative North Shore concertgoers. And Gerard Schwarz and Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra usually have enough prestige to guarantee a boffo box office. Alas, when the temperature plunges into the 50s and rains threaten, how many brave souls want to sit outdoors even for Mozart’s music?

For those who did show up, this concert of works from the composer’s formative years was well worth the trip. Mozart the inquisitive teen genius wrote well-crafted music that reflected his cheerful, sheltered Salzburg upbringing. Later, as he grew up, married, and became embroiled in life’s intrigues, his works took on a richer hue, and he achieved a more sophisticated formalism that heightens their emotional intensity. Schwarz and his longtime colleagues neatly highlighted the various stages in Mozart’s evolution.

The most one can say about Symphony no. 24, the opening piece, is that it’s relentlessly amiable. Except for brief moments of petulance, the music–composed when Mozart was 17–expresses frivolity and a fondness for the light Italianate style. The orchestra, under the maestro’s gentle yet assertive guidance, gave a good-natured performance, with enough warmth to lessen the sting of the unseasonably cold weather.

The Violin Concerto in G Major is the third of five Mozart dashed off in 1775, shortly before the onset of a mysterious mental crisis. Its disposition, however, is sunny and carefree, clouded only by the contrived melancholy of the middle movement. Soloist Pamela Frank, a young Curtis Institute graduate, brought out its grace and lyricism. Her sweet, mellow, sometimes soulful tone was echoed by the orchestra.

By the time of the Haffner Symphony seven years later, Mozart had settled in Vienna and was taking himself seriously as an innovator. Though rearranged from a serenade and hence essentially festive, this symphony (number 35) is weightier, more passionate, and structurally tighter than most of its predecessors. Schwarz led the orchestra through an elegant, sometimes emphatic reading that didn’t quite have the fiery drama the composer requested.

There is plenty of dramatic imploring in the two concert arias “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!” and “No, che non sei capace.” Both portray a woman maddened by love–a prototype of the scorned heroines in the great operas to come. Soprano Sumi Jo, a Karajan protege, has a clear voice that can waft effortlessly into the upper register. Pert and vivacious, she was vividly theatrical. Her coloratura makes her an ideal Queen of the Night. And she proved it in the fiendishly difficult aria “Der Holle Rache” from The Magic Flute. Appropriately, too, Jo turned the Queen’s cry for vengeance into her own rage at the heavens for chilling her Ravinia debut.