The Pros and Cons of Death
A German friend once offered this joke: a group of Germans pass away, and are headed up to heaven. They reach a fork in the road. The sign to the left reads: This Way to Heaven. To the right, Six Lectures about Heaven.
They all turn right.
It would be sillier even to make light of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s deeply moving performance Thursday evening at Symphony Hall—Jörg Widmann’s piano concerto “Trauermarsch” (Funeral March), with soloist Yefim Bronfman, and Brahms’ “Ein Deutsches Requiem”—with Andris Nelsons conducting. But somewhat to the point. Between the harrowing “Trauermarsch,” and the supremely uplifting “Requiem,” two views of death could hardly be more clearly delineated.
Widmann’s one-movement concerto starts and stays in funeral march mode. From the first two softly articulated notes—a flatted second in the piano, echoed in the trumpet—the somber mood persists throughout. It’s explored and exploded in the next twenty minutes or so, but never abandoned.
The pianist does battle with an orchestra laden with percussion, performing all sort of glissandos, Bartok pizzicato, and outlandish sonic textures. Striking violin gestures from first desks Tamara Smirnova and Alexander Velinzon stand out.
It challenges sonically, but not structurally. The signature interval—Widmann claims it's as old as Monteverdi in expressing lament—never seems to leave the stage, articulated in one way or another, echoed in the harmonies, sounded out discretely in different instruments.
Bronfman’s muscular artistry keeps the work from dissolving into a noise fest. It’s combat, and he rides boldly through it, aggressive but calm.
Widmann has received the initial joint commission that will herald the beginning of Nelsons’ dual directorships of both the BSO and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 2017. “Trauermarsch” makes this seem prescient: a startlingly creative blend of textures and attack, it both challenges and welcomes.
Nelsons brought soloists Thomas Hampson and Camilla Tilling, as well as a generously sized selection from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, to the stage after intermission for Brahms’ great oratorio. There’s heavy lifting in this piece for the chorus, and Nelsons guided his singers diligently.
The chorus, prepared by Lidiya Yankovskaya, sang blended (and with the score—an increasingly frequent change from the days of John Oliver’s directorship). This is a work that relies on the chorus, not on the soloists, and Yankovskaya had the ensemble deftly prepared.
Brahms’s libretto, his own amalgam of Martin Luther’s scripture, accents the positive. The dead are lucky, he seems to sketch out in seven movements: they live on in the resurrection. “Selig sind” (“They are blessed”) echoes throughout the work, bracketing it as well, beginning and end.
Sonically inviting, climaxing twice in gorgeous choral fugues (bringing to a close the third and sixth movements), Brahms had his own tragedies in mind when composing it—his mentor Schumann’s suicide attempt, his own mother’s death—but this Requiem has stood tall for many subsequent memorials.
Hampson sang strongly. His voice lacks some magic, but physically and sonically he delivers. Tilling has a curious instrument: certainly not lustrous or perfectly glowing, but with a uniquely appealing character. Early doubling from the winds left her exposed, and the pitches weren’t matching well.
She could be forgiven; she sits for nearly an hour before her brief solo in Part V. By the time she closes with “wieder sehen” (“see you again”), doubled yet again by the winds, Tilling was singing forcefully, with deep impact.
But “Ein Deutsches Requiem” focuses mainly on the chorus. Blending the voices had a symbolic as well an aural result: as much as Beethoven’s Ninth does, Brahms’ oratorio underscores its humanism, bringing us together in expectation and hope.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons conducting, performs Jörg Widmann’s “Trauermarsch” and Brahms’ “Ein Deutsches Requiem” through on Saturday, Oct. 8. 888-266-1200; bso.org