Something extraordinary is happening in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, and readers are strongly encouraged to purchase any remaining tickets for performances of Brahms by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra immediately. german requiem today and tomorrow.
Conducted by Simone Young and featuring soprano Emma Matthews, baritone Bo Skovhus and the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, last night’s concert delivered music so glorious it was hard to imagine something so beautiful be played elsewhere in the world.
Ordinarily a Catholic mass for the dead, Brahms’ Lutheran version of the Requiem is meant to offer comfort to the living. It is therefore a much more edifying experience than, for example, the versions of Mozart or Verdi with their fire and sulfur. In fact, moments from last night’s performance were reminiscent of Holcombe Waller’s Contemporary Requiem, which received its Australian premiere with the Sydney Chamber Choir under the direction of Sam Allchurch at Sydney Mardi Gras 2019. Waller also kept to mind those loved ones who remain, especially those who are denied the right to grieve due to prejudice and exclusion.
Reading Brahms by Simone Young german requiem is where life and death coexist. Brahms was a lover of folk music – just think of his arrangements for German folk songs and his Hungarian dances – and this influence is also reflected in the melodies of his Requiem. However, Young assures that they hover happily above an ominous shade that constantly pulsates. The organ and the double basses resonate in the room and deep in our souls, delivering a literally heartbreaking sound memento mori.
Young also maintains appropriate tempos somewhere between the celebration and the funeral march. We feel the push and pull of her steering, and it’s a visceral experience, as if we too are held by the reins she holds firmly. Young takes us on an emotional journey and the effect is thrilling. When it gains momentum, it’s like the force of the jet of an airplane taking off. Then, just when it looks like we’re about to be thrown from our seats, she pulls us back. Impossible not to be engulfed by these musical undulations.
Some conductors have made the piece an almost monodic blancmange. Not young. It makes the orchestra and the choir sparkle, releasing all the contrapuntal beauty of Brahms’s music. Beneath glorious sustained vocal notes, the orchestra modulates and the dissonance is swiftly and beautifully resolved. In this way, Brahms rewards the listener with repeated episodes of closure, unlike his rival Wagner, who pulled the resolution of the famous “Tristan agreement” over almost four hours. Curiously, Brahms – the self-proclaimed greatest of all Wagnerians – took it upon himself to also resolve the “Tristan chord” in his own Intermezzo op. 76 No. 4 in B flat major.
by Wagner Tristan and Isolda created two years before that of Brahms german requiem. Although the two composers were opposed in the so-called ‘War of the Romantics’, Brahms’ admiration for Wagner is well documented and Young’s mastery of the German repertoire illustrates this beautifully. This was perhaps most notable during the sixth movement, Denn wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt (Because we have no permanent residence here) featuring Skovhus. Young’s reading felt like the Dutchman’s epic monologue Die Frist ist um by Wagner Der fliegende Hollander from 1843. Accompanying Skovhus, the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs under Brett Weymark also evoked the tempest scene later in the same opera.
Skovhus brings incredible power and phrasing to his two solo movements and Sydney audiences are privileged to have this rare opportunity to witness his artistry live on stage. Like Young, he enjoys an innate connection to German music and language. He has exquisite portamento along with the ability to deconstruct a diphthong, so subtle modulations are brought to the fore. In fact, vowels seem to take on a life of their own when shaped by Skovhus, much like the great bass-baritone Alfred Muff, and all dissenters from the beauty of sung German would surely reconsider their position in the presence of such vocal dexterity.
Likewise, Matthews perfectly delivers his solo, which can be seen as the heart and soul of this Requiem. This is the moment when Brahms openly mourns the death of his mother, who died in 1865. However, even here there is a lightness of touch, enhanced by Matthews’ warm, crystal-clear soprano. It seems to celebrate all that was good about Brahms’ mother and results in a truly radiant moment, in which her spirit sings for us. Matthews makes sure every note resonates in our hearts; his perfect diction like that of Skovhus and the chorus, every word imprinted indelibly on our consciousness.
by Brahms german requiem is a popular piece, but no matter how many times you’ve heard it, this rendition by Young has to be seen to be believed. Much has been written about the refined acoustics of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall since it reopened last month. While Simone Young directed Mahler Resurrection Symphony triumphed as it should on this occasion, last night it outdid itself. Neither the SSO nor Brahms german requiem have never sounded so good.
Simone Young conducts A german requiem at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall until August 7.