Ein deutsches Requiem

Last night was time for another injection of culture, so I went again to St David’s Hall in Cardiff for a programme of music played by the Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera conducted by musical director Lothar Koenigs.

The first item on the programme was the set of five Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the Death of Children) by Gustav Mahler, settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert drawn from a huge collection of tragic verse the poet produced in reaction to the death of his children from scarlet fever. Mahler’s daughter Maria herself suffered the same fate in 1909, four years after the first performance of the Kindertotenlieder. Of course these works are immensely poignant, but the pervading atmosphere is not just of  melancholy but also of resignation. The soloist last night was mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly who gave a performance of great dignity and emotional power. She has a simply gorgeous voice, with lovely velvety chest tones as well as strength and clarity in the upper register. She looked the part too, her facial expressions adding to the sense of tragedy underlying the music. One for Mahler fans only, I suspect, but I loved it.

The next piece before the interval was quite new to me, A Survivor from Warsaw, written by Arnold Schoenberg in 1947 as a reaction to the persecution of jews in the Warsaw ghetto. In addition to the orchestra this work features a male chorus and a narrator (WNO regular David Soar) who recounts the story of a massacre in the declamatory Sprechstimme that Schoenberg used in several works. I was surprised to learn from the programme that the narration was actually written in English (as it was performed last night), but I don’t think the texture of the English language really suits this style of vocalisation. The male chorus sings a setting of the Shema Yisrael amidst sounds representing the violence of the attacking soldiers. The music is rigorously atonal: disturbing, agonized and entirely appropriate to the subject. Not exactly easy listening, but why on Earth should it be?

After the interval we heard the main piece of the evening, Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) by Johannes Brahms. Regular readers of this blog (both of them) will know that I’m not exactly a devout follower of Brahms, but he is a composer I somehow feel I ought to persevere with. The German Requiem is, like the preceding pieces, a reaction to loss; in this case it was probably the deaths of Brahms’ mother and of his friend Robert Schumman that led Brahms to compose the work. It’s not a traditional Requiem, in the sense of being a liturgical setting, but it does take its text from the scriptures. It’s also a very large work, comprising seven movements lasting well over an hour altogether, and is Brahms’ longest composition. Soloists were David Soar (bass-baritone) and Laura Mitchell (soprano); the latter wore a white dress and black shoes to the consternation of the fashion-conscious members of the audience. Apparently that’s a no-no.

This is not a work that I’m familiar with amd it’s such a long piece that it’s difficult to take it all in during one performance. Inevitably, therefore, there are parts that stand out in my memory better than others. The orchestral playing was very tight, full of colour, and never lost momentum. However, I would say that the Chorus of Welsh National Opera were absolutely magnificent; the dramatic intensity they achieved during the crescendi in the 2nd movement (Denn alles Fleisch, with text drawn from Psalm 126) definitely raised the hairs on the back of my neck. That alone was enough to make me want to listen to this again.  I’d therefore like to ask any readers of this blog please to help by suggesting good recordings of this work through the Comments box.

Here’s a version of the 2nd Movement I found on youtube, just to give you an idea of its sombre majesty, but last night’s rendition was better. Try to imagine what the crescendo that grows from about 3.00 sounds like live…

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14 Responses to “Ein deutsches Requiem”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’m sure that Kindertotenlieder is wonderful music, but it makes me think of Tom Lehrer’s line about “Mahler, composer of Das Lied von der Erde and other light classics” and Oscar Wilde on Dickens’ death of Little Nell: “One would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh”.

    Denn Alles Fleisch is always what people remember about the German Requiem. The mood change in the middle, to look forward to the Resurrection, is amazing. Before my conversion I wanted the darker first part played at my funeral. Now I would want the whole movement – although I’d actually dump it in favour of Händel’s Dead March from Saul (definitely the greatest funeral music ever composed) followed by The Trumpet Shall Sound from Messiah.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think I’d find this a bit grandiose for my own funeral. I’d probably go for In Paradisum from the Fauré Requiem if I were to choose a piece of religious music, remembering that a funeral is for those left behind not for the deceased…

  2. telescoper Says:

    The 4th movement is also quite well-known I think, but quite different. Very tranquil and calm.

    It struck me after writing the piece how appropriate all three of these pieces are for the season of remembrance. As the programme says, the three pieces “ultimately find hope and light in the darkest hours of the human experience” and “hint how we might transcend tragedy and how deeply music can console”.

    The presence of the piece by Schoenberg in the programme also reminds us that even the traditions that produced so much glorious music also had the potential to produce sheer horror. Flickiing through the Youtube versions of the Brahms you can find comment after comment about the Nazis. It’s puerile of course to blame all that on Brahms or indeed on all German people, as some of the commenters seem to do. I think it is worth reflecting however than any culture, including our own, can turn to evil when it loses sight of the common humanity we all share.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      What connection were the YouTubers asserting between the Nazis and Brahms (not Wagner!)? I don’t get it.

      And what language did Schönberg mean the Shema to be sung in, please?

    • telescoper Says:

      I think the comments were because “Denn Alles Fleisch” was used as the theme music for a TV series called the Nazis: A Warning from History. I fear some commenters thought that meant Brahms himself was a Nazi…

      In the Schoenberg piece, the narration is in English while the orders of the soldiers are in German. The Shema (which I believe is what observant jews say as their last words when death is imminent) is sung as the jewish victims of the massacre would have said it, presumably in Hebrew although not knowing the language at all I didn’t recognize it.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Yes, it would be Hebrew. I know the Shema well enough but didn’t realise that it was the Old Testament analogue of “into thy hands I commend my spirit” (from Luke’s gospel).

      Thank you for the Nazi/Brahms explanation. Not having a TV ariel, I wouludn’t have known.

    • “The presence of the piece by Schoenberg in the programme also reminds us that even the traditions that produced so much glorious music also had the potential to produce sheer horror. Flickiing through the Youtube versions of the Brahms you can find comment after comment about the Nazis. It’s puerile of course to blame all that on Brahms or indeed on all German people, as some of the commenters seem to do.”

      If I remember the story correctly, Joschka Fischer was in Israel during his time as foreign minister. Having forgotten to switch off his mobile, it rang at an inappropriate moment with a melody by Bach. An aide commented that it was probably good that it wasn’t Wagner.

      The Wagner Festspiele in Bayreuth are a big society event; I suspect that most of the famous who attend are not fans of Wagner. However, it appears that Angela Merkel and her husband, chemistry professor Joachim Sauer, have actually been Wagner fans for a long time. Sauer doesn’t give interviews unless they are about his work and says he is Angela Merkel’s husband, not the husband of the chancellor. Thus, Bayreuth is one of the few times one sees them together in public, or Sauer at all, at any sort of society event. This led one magazine to dub Sauer “The phantom of the opera”.

      (Like Oskar Lafontaine, Angela Merkel is a physicist and worked in research before going into politics.)

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      There was a big row in Israel, which has an unofficial ban on Wagner, when a conductor (Barenboim?) said that it was time to start playing him again there, and did. I believe that a large number of motorists circled the concert hall hooting continuously. I can see both sides of this one.

  3. Quite a surprise to read about the Deutsches Requiem in an astronomomy blog – as the piece will be performed in a planetarium coming Tuesday. (Sorry for the shameless plug. 🙂

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    Brahms’s German Requiem is an excellent piece of music and I value it highly. Perhaps it would be even stronger with more contrast between the movements. The orchestration can sound rather dense in some performances – the arrangement for two pianos, in place of an orchestra, can bring clarity.

    I believe I have heard Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw on the radio, but have not heard it performed live, and my memory of it is hazy. It is a piece that deserves more attention.

    The Kindertotenlieder always strikes me as being Mahler at his most morbid, even death obsessed. While Mahler experienced great suffering over the deaths of his young children, the piece does seem to me to be overly introspective. It’s not a favourite by any means.

    I haven’t got a preferred recording of Ein Deutsches Requiem. I rather like the old-fashioned performance by the Philharmonia and Otto Klemperer, but many people would prefer something more modern, clearer and more lively.

    • telescoper Says:

      In fact Mahler wrote the Kindertotenlieder before the death of his own child and actually said that he couldn’t have written the music if it had been about personal loss. In fact Mahler chose just five poems from over 400 that Ruckert wrote in response to the death of his children. But the response to music like this is very personal. I don’t find it morbid. I find it not only cathartic but also, somewhat paradoxically, life-affirming.

      I listened the to Klemperer recording of the German Requiem this afternoon. I know it’s highly rated but I found the tempo a bit too “stately” and felt it became a bit self-indulgent. The last thing you need for a piece like this is to wallow in it.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      My `take it and leave it’ view of Mahler is evident here. I love some of Mahler’s music, but some pieces can seem mawkish to me at time.

      I did hear John Elliot Gardner, the Orchestra Revolutionaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir in the Brahms Requiem a few years ago. They tried a faster, brighter, lighter approach, which worked well. There are recordings of some of these lighter, faster performances to be had, although I’m not familiar with any of them. Perhaps some other reader of this blog could recommend one.

  5. It’s one of my favourite pieces of music and I was lucky enough to play it with the UCL orchestra – in fact I may not have played it too well as I loved listening too much! I have a von Karajan recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, Barbara Hendricks & Jose van Dam, which I really like.

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