Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn and “Ein deutsches Requiem”

The New York Philharmonic on Tuesday, June 5.

The traditional Latin text for a requiem mass is a prayer for the dead, repeatedly asking God to grant the departed eternal rest. Brahms’ requiem is different. Instead of using the Latin liturgy, he patched together texts from the Bible, both Old Testament and New. The result is a prayer not so much for the dead but for the living: those who grieve and will someday die themselves.

Ein deutsches Requiem is nothing less than the most powerful, eloquent contemplation of mortality I’ve ever encountered. Grand yet intimate, it first assures you that you will find peace someday (Brahms opens with one of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted”), and then it plunges into a harrowing study of the transience of human life. (“For all flesh is as grass…”) After that grim truth, the reassurances of the final movements, with promises of life after death from the Epistles and Revelation, are truly heavenly. The requiem is an emotionally exhausting work but an extraordinary one.

So impatient was I to get the requiem (which I’ve studied and performed and loved for years) that I didn’t pay much attention to the set of variations the Philharmonic played before intermission Tuesday night. The variations were charming, of course, but they can’t compare to the fire of the requiem. Brahms had an amazing ability to complement his text with his music. The “For all flesh is as grass” chorus sounds like a death march. The voices sound relentlessly in unison, the timpani booms, the brass crescendos to a terrifying crash. Later, during the triumphant sixth movement, the choir celebrates the hope of resurrection with a glorious fugue on words from Revelation (one of the beautiful, poetic passages, not the bloodthirsty mayhem of other excerpts). There, the prolonged crescendo is joyously melismatic, not heavy with dire accents, and it fills you with warmth, not despair.

I’m sure the Philharmonic has performed Brahms’ requiem on many, many occasions (the most recent previous performance was held a few days after September 11, 2001—a detail that made me tear up), but the instrumentalists still played the music with fresh energy and passion under conductor Lorin Maazel’s baton, and the New York Choral Artists matched them in intensity. Soprano Celena Shafer was lovely (though I admit her solo is my least favorite of the seven movements), but the baritone soloist, Matthias Goerne, blew me away. With his resonant, agile voice, he sounded as though he were preaching—not fire and brimstone (though he had that kind on fervor) but an ardent, muscular faith—exactly what I think Brahms was trying to achieve.