Brahms’s “Ein deutsches Requiem”

Dresden Staatskapelle at the White Light Festival on Sunday, October 31.

Lincoln Center’s new White Light Festival celebrates music conceived with spiritual meaning, music that consciously seeks some transcendent quality. It is, in short, a festival after my own heart. In virtually every other arena, I find the phrase “spiritual, not religious” irritating—I dismiss it reflexively—but in the concert hall, the words actually mean something to me. Maybe it’s the collaborative nature of the medium, maybe it’s something about the way sound reverberates in a room, maybe it’s just years of conditioning, but music affects me like nothing else.

As for the festival, if you’re going to pick a spiritually meaningful work in the canon of Western music, you’d be hard-pressed to find something better or more appropriate than Brahms’s glorious Ein deutsches Requiem. It’s both a compositional masterpiece and an acutely personal work: Instead of setting the traditional Latin texts (the “Kyrie,” the “Dies Irae,” and all that), Brahms personally selected passages from Luther’s translation of the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, deliberately avoiding Christian dogma (Jesus is quoted but never directly mentioned) and highlighting more broadly humanistic passages of comfort and hope. The result is a requiem like no other: a passionate attempt to confront and accept the specter of mortality, not so much for the dead as for the living.

I’ve written about Ein deutsches Requiem before, and I don’t necessarily have much more to say about it than what I did then. Brahms’s dramatic, heartfelt interpretations of the text; his stunning, exquisitely constructed fugues; the penetrating and profound baritone solo—all these move me deeply each time I hear the piece. And the Dresden Staatskapelle and Westminster Symphonic Choir—not to mention baritone Matthais Goerne, who was as impressive this time as he was with the Philharmonic three years ago—performed it with great sensitivity and feeling. There were a few minor timing issues, a few slightly jagged entrances, but these were nothing compared to the interpretive quality of the performance. Conductor Daniel Harding coaxed beautiful pianissimos and perfectly modulated crescendos from the musicians. In the fugues, the counterpoint never blurred into an indiscriminate block of sound; you could every entry of the subject, each line rising and falling as it should in the texture of the music. The White Light Festival’s Deutsches Requiem was everything I could have hoped for; now I just have to hope that Lincoln Center makes the festival an annual tradition.

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