Death is never easy to accept and for some us the loss of a loved one is so deeply personal, sharing these emotions publicly is never easy. Composers have long used music to express emotions that couldn’t otherwise divulge. With Ein deutsches Requiem Brahms has done this, even though he was a extremely reserved when speaking about the motivation for this piece. Whether the music was specifically written for mother or his dear friend Robert Schumann, it is certainly filled with passion, a sense of loss, yet deeply religious on a very personal level.
The first movement is a somber blessing for both the living and the dead. Yet, this is not the Latin or Roman Requiem, but rather a humanists approach to accepting the inevitability of death. The Roman Catholic liturgy begins with prayers for the dead ("Grant them eternal rest, O Lord"), whereas Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem emphasizes comforting the living, beginning with the text "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted." This humanist viewpoint persists through the work even though “sacred” text is used extensively. The first movement progresses quietly as if the chorus is in prayer. James Levine does a masterful job of maintaining a sense of reverence while crafting the sense of underlying power in the music. This is an emotion filled piece and Boston Symphony Orchestra performs it beautifully.
As the Requiem moves forward we face death in the second movement, bold and resolute, but not overpowering, just definite. We get a chance to hear to incredible skill of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under the direction of John Oliver. The syllables are always clear even when the voices are brought down to a near whisper. As death marches on, the voices carry forward the patience and hope in the words.
So often the music begins a movement bereft, and the third movement is no exception, Michael Volle communicating a deep sense of loss and anguish, questioning and yearning so beautifully expressed in the originally German. In the end the chorus returns with a sense of hope, “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and there shall no torment touch them.” They sing out to the heavens with optimism.
Even without an understanding of German, the music expresses the conflict we the living have with the finality of death. This recording by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of James Levine with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under the direction of John Oliver is a strong showing for a new label BSO Classics. It is without a doubt not only a brilliant recording of the Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem, it sets the bar extremely high for future orchestras who consider performing this monumental work.