Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Second Tier Box Rear (Seat 20F2, $43).
Program: Brahms the Romantic – A Philharmonic Festival
Variations on a Theme by Haydn by Brahms (1833-1897).
A German Requiem, Op. 45 by Brahms.
We had tickets for June 9 and 16 (both programs conducted by Riccardo Muti, with Lang Lang playing Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto in one) but wouldn't be able to make them due to our planned trip to Asia. We got tonight's ticket in exchange for one event, and gave the Lang Lang concert tickets to a friend. While I would like to see Lang Lang and Muti (whom I still have yet to see), I am also glad we went to tonight's concert.
Brahms' first foray into symphonic work was with these Hadyn Variations. He composed a score for two pianos and another for an orchestra. Interestingly, most musicologists today believe the theme wasn't written by Hadyn. The piece contains the theme (Chorale St. Antoni - Andante), eight variations (Poco piu animato, Piu vivace, Con moto, Andante con moto, Vivace, Vivace, Grazioso, Preseto no troppo), and a Finale (Andante). This composition is quite unusual as variations go - the theme only unmistakenly appears in the first and last movements. Nonetheless, the 20- or so minute piece was quite delightful.
As with many of Brahms' works, “A German Requiem” underwent many revisions before Brahms finally finished it. Most Requiems are based on the Latin requiem mass text, starting with Introit et Kyrie and ending with In paradisum. Brahms chose for his work different passages from the Bible, in German. He also said his work could be called “A Human Requiem”. There is no mention of Christ at all in the text, but there is a strong sense of faith and redemption nonetheless. This piece was played by the New York Philharmonic on September 20, 2001 as a memorial for the 9/11 attacks. The headings of the pieces are (i) Blessed are they that mourn; (ii) For all flesh is grass; (iii) Lord, teach me; (iv) How amiable are Thy tabernacles; (v) Ye now therefore have sorrow; (vi) For here have we no continuing city; and (vii) Bleassed are the dead.
The piece was very enjoyable, and moving. The soloists were the soprano Celena Shafer and the baritone Matthias Goerne. While up to the task, they had relatively minor roles (each sang for fewer than five minutes). The New York Chorale consisted of about 80 singers, they were generally quite good also. They couldn't get all the s's and t's in sync, though. And there were many of those sounds in the German lyrics.
We were in the city early, so we went to the pre-concert talk by Charles Borstein, scholar in residence at the Philharmonic. He talked about two things in the Requiem: the seventh interval which recurs in every movement, and the Dresden Amen. I only caught glimpses of them during the concert. He also mentioned the piece was not motif-based but was rather harmony-based. While I understand what he said in the abstract, I am not sure I agree with it, and there were certainly many motif-sounding fragments to me. When asked whom the Requiem was written for, he mentioned it might have been for Robert Schumann, or Brahms's own mother. Then he made the insightful remark that at the end the composer wrote it for himself.
The requiem was 70 minutes long (advertised as 60 in the notes). Maazel conducted it without music, although I was a bit worried about his stamina – he seemed a bit tired at the end. It was a great performance, though.
The New York Times preview of the program (which also reviewed an earlier program) is brutal, severely criticizing the perceived lack of originality of the “Brahms the Romantic” series and Maazel's handling of Brahms in general. Let me repeat: I thought the evening's performance was quite enjoyable.