Critical Reviews of the Brahms

Well, this was another lesson in “don’t put too much stock in the reviewers.”  Our Thursday performance was perhaps one of the better performances I’ve been privileged to be a part of.  Our Friday matinee was also outstanding, though I admit I felt more emotionally connected to the Thursday performance… Fridays was more mechanical, and a little tougher for the chorus to keep the pitch up at the end, no doubt a little vocally weary after singing this twice in 16 hours.

But you wouldn’t believe that based on some of the reviews.

Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe had this to say about the chorus:

And of course the hard-working Tanglewood Festival Chorus was in the spotlight for the entire evening. There were a few moments of wayward pitch, but overall these singers achieved a beautifully warm blend and sang from memory with a musical responsiveness that would be gratifying for any conductor. Certainly, as the response made clear, it was gratifying in the hall.

We initially bristled at the characterization of “a few moments of wayward pitch,” but a few chorus members in the audience dutifully confirmed just that: one or two moments of wavering.  Hardly significant, though, and by all accounts did not detract from the full enjoyment of the piece.  If anything, it’s disappointing what the reviewer did NOT mention: the slavish attention to detail with regard to diction and dynamics that produced a clarity of sound rarely heard in any Brahms Requiem performance.

The next Boston-area review, by David Wright of Boston Classical Review, was just a darn shame.  It practically devolved into insulting us.  He *really* didn’t like the performance, calling it “dull” and “a lugubrious miasma.”  And while many of us considered the soprano good but not great,  he held her up as the bright spot…

…on a night characterized by plodding tempos, lax rhythms, congealed orchestral textures, and choral singing that sounded harsh in forte and fuzzy in the softer dynamics.

Mr. Wright also claimed Dohnányi’s performance lacked in Brahmsian energy and warmth, said the Wie lieblich had no gentle sway to it, and claimed the emotional contrasts of the second movement “were grayed out in Dohnányi’s slack, one-tone-fits-all rendering.”  He further writes:

In fact, the entire performance was a cautionary study in how important a firm rhythmic foundation is, no matter what the music’s mood.  Without it, phrases lost shape and direction, ensemble playing grew shaky, crescendos lacked emotional conviction and became just a dialing-up of sound, the chorus’s tone and diction sagged—and, for the listener, minutes began to seem like hours.

To this, most of us say, “Huh?”  It’s hard to understand whether Mr. Wright was in the same Hall as the rest of us.  I could go through and refute each one of his points (except maybe the sagging tone), as each one of them was countered by the specific praise we heard from sharper, more experienced ears than his: non-roster chorus members attending, native speakers who praised our diction, brass at the BSO, orchestra members, and John Oliver himself.  My guess is that he fell into the same issue that I mentioned at the end of a previous blog post: his favorite interpretation of the Brahms Requiem no doubt indulges in more upbeat tempi, more swells, and [hyper]emotional melodrama.  Yet I still can’t explain his characterization of congealed orchestral textures, fuzzy choral singing, and lack of a rhythmic foundation.  Maybe he sat behind a pole or something.  Shrug.

The last review published online was the most spot on, from my ears, and not just because he said nice things.  Joel Schwindt, of the Boston Musical Intelligencer, wrote:

The combined forces offered a sensitive, supple interpretation of the work’s varied textures and temperaments, and the chorus displayed a remarkable unity of concept in their rendition of the Biblical and secular texts. This high level of unification included an impressive rapport between conductor and chorus, conductor and orchestra, and even the less-frequently-found rapport between chorus and orchestra, all of which was well served by the chorus’s memorization of the work.

He said the soloists were the only disappointment of the evening–not because their performances were poor (“executed their parts skillfully and gracefully”) but because they didn’t adapt their light-hearted vocal style sufficiently to meet the gravitas of Brahms.  He cited their backgrounds: Müller-Brachmann came across as if doing a Schubert song-cycle, and Prohaska resembled her colortura opera roles.  I hadn’t thought of this when hearing them, but I’m convinced he’s correct.

He closes with a movement by movement analysis of the performance, complimenting our performance as an ensemble rather than as chorus + orchestra + conductor.  I’d call it all exceedingly accurate and have no real quibbles with his observations and criticisms:

Soloists aside, the ensemble communicated Brahms’s message of “comfort for the living, rather than the beloved departed” (to paraphrase the composer) in a very moving fashion. A small amount of reticence at the opening of the performance completely vanished by the return of the first movement’s opening music, a moment that what was perhaps the most sublime of the entire evening. If the recapitulation of the first movement was the most sublime, then the return of the opening text in the second movement (“Denn alles fleisch es ist wie Grass/Then all flesh is as the grass”) was certainly the most moving. The ensemble offered a very tender rendition of the simply textured fourth movement, and its promise of eternal blessing after death. The sixth movement had its high and low points: the chorus’s staccato articulation at the opening led to a loss of the “horizontal” qualities of the musical and textual line, though the fluidity and intensity of lines that followed created a very effective buildup to the Vivace of the triumphant, “Tod, wo ist dein Sieg?” (Death, where is your victory?) Dohnányi’s choice of tempo in the Vivace was very exhilarating, though it was generally too fast to allow the chorus effectively to articulate of the syntax of the text. All of these issues disappeared, however, in the group’s exuberant rendition of the movement’s closing fugue. The final movement, “Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herrn sterben” (Blessed are the dead, who die in the Lord), offered a touching close to the group’s stirring performance.

It’s telling that Mr. Schwindt’s byline gives his credentials as pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at Brandeis as well as having vocalist and conductor experience.  It shows in his writing and his analysis of the performance.

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3 responses to “Critical Reviews of the Brahms

  1. I’m with you completely – Wrigt’s response is inexplicable. “Yet I still can’t explain his characterization of congealed orchestral textures, fuzzy choral singing, and lack of a rhythmic foundation” — ditto. I have never heard the chrous better, I believe. An occasional pitch misstep, sure, but occasional misses on precision just underscored how amazing the articulation was otherwise. The soloists were the least appealing component to me. Loved the sporano’s voice though I agree it didn’t blend or adapt to the ensemble around her. The baritone’s mannerisms were actually annoying to me though, the music being most important, I thought he did a good job. LOVE the info provided by Schwindt. Any reviewer who not only gets it right but expands our own ability to evaluate what’s going on is all good in my book! Remember, you had a hall full of people whose response was exuberant. I have to say, the Easter week concert every year is one of my favorites, and this year’s is right up there. Thanks.

  2. Congratulations! I will take only Schwindt’s words on it and, judging by his name only, he may be a German speaker. Enjoyed the post about the detailed preparations. Sounds like a great experience!

  3. Pingback: Critical Reviews of the Verdi Requiem | Just Another Bass

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