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Chicago Symphony Chorus glories in Brahms’ ‘German Requiem’ under van Zweden’s baton

Submitted by on Nov 13, 2016 – 11:10 pm

Baritone Michael Nagy was the voice of Everyman in Brahms' 'German Requiem' conducted by Jaap van Zweden. (Todd Rosenberg)

Review: Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Jaap van Zweden; soprano Christiane Karg, baritone Michael Nagy. 
By Lawrence B. Johnson

Brahms’ “German Requiem” is a gentle monument, expressive in equal parts of humility, reassurance and peace. Such were the components of a radiant performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with soprano Christiane Karg and baritone Michael Nagy, conducted by Jaap van Zweden on Nov. 11 at Orchestra Hall.

The CSO Chorus, prepared by Duain Wolfe, sang in clear, expressive German. (Todd Rosenberg)

Technically, one could even say spiritually, what Brahms wrought in this work isn’t a requiem at all – except in the generic sense of the word. It is neither a Roman Catholic mass nor a formal ritual for the dead. Brahms called it a German requiem because he drew his text from Protestant scripture; he might have called it a folk requiem. And it is very much a hymn of grace and perspective for those who have lost a loved one: the mournful living.

Important as the two solo voices are, the greater weight of the “German Requiem” rests with the chorus, which begins and ends the work and indeed frames its spiritual essence in the second of the requiem’s seven movements — the spacious and splendorous canticle “Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” (For all flesh is as grass). This single complex episode also defined both the exquisite achievement of the CSO Chorus and the commanding and empathic musical direction that van Zweden provided throughout.

To say this chorus, meticulously prepared by Duain Wolfe, sang in German would be a woefully inadequate observation. The choristers sang in precisely intelligible German that matched their nuanced inflection and finely terraced dynamics on the musical side. One moment, the choral sound sparkled in the soft caress of a lullaby, only to surge the next instant with hair-raising power.

Soprano Christiane Karg and the CSO Chorus conveyed a message of comfort. (Todd Rosenberg)

As we come into the season of Handel’s great oratorio that begins with the invocation, “Comfort ye, my people,” so the CSO Chorus evoked just that strain of assurance at the close of the “German Requiem” with the ethereal phrases of “Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herren sterben” (Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord). This sizable ensemble sang with the personal warmth of a chamber ensemble.

That said, in the two soloists, but especially in the baritone, Brahms also gives specific voice to Everyman. Nagy’s dark, strong voice conveyed on clarion notes the message of “Herr, lehre doch mich, dass ein Ende mit mir haben muss” (Lord, let me know that I must have an end). Yet no less fetching vocally was the alliance of Karg and chorus in the fifth movement, which begins “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (You now have sorrow) and, almost as a tender aside, offers the pledge, “Ich will euch trösten, wie einen seine Mutter tröstet” (I will comfort you as one whom a mother comforts).

From the CSO, van Zweden – music director-designate of the New York Philharmonic – drew ardent, pliant playing that generated a dark brilliance in the low strings, the bedrock upon which Brahms founded his earthly requiem.

(Note to opera buffs: Christiane Karg returns to Chicago in December to star as Pamina in the Lyric Opera production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” which opens an 11-performance run Dec. 10.)

What a far cry from this beautiful “German Requiem” was van Zweden’s almost brutal assault on Wagner in the concert’s first half. The companion choice for Brahms was inspired: the Prelude and Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde.” The performance was anything but. The CSO strings, which have sounded angelic week after week this autumn season, took quite a fall here. The playing was rough, the phrasing shapeless. I can’t recall a comparable plunge by this fabulous string choir in the last decade. From an ensemble molded by one of the world’s great opera conductors, van Zweden elicited nothing that would even have passed for acceptable in a major opera house.

The maestro managed a better result in the concert opener, on another good idea: Mozart’s rarely encountered little jewel, the “Masonic Funeral Music.” To Mozart’s lyric solemnity, conductor and orchestra brought both gravity and luster. Alone, without the Wagner and without an intermission, this might have afforded a perfect setup for the magnificent “German Requiem” to come.

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