Johannes Brahms’ “A German Requiem” is a secular Mass for the dead based on the Lutheran Bible. Its fifth movement, titled “Ihr habt nun Traurigket” (“And ye now are sorrowful”), is almost a stand-alone aria for soprano with chorus and orchestra. Last night in Symphony Hall, conducted by Donald Runnicles, it was delivered with such fervent elegance, such melancholy optimism, such lyrical beauty that it felt historic — as if, perhaps, the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus and guests had never made music this good.
This week’s “A German Requiem” — the final performance is tonight (Oct. 30) — brought together several elements that explain the ASO today. Foremost, the Requiem is a core of the organization, a founding document from the Robert Shaw days. Chorus and orchestra have performed it countless times and recorded it twice for Telarc. Several other notable in-concert ASO interpretations circulate in pirate recordings.
Now directed by Norman Mackenzie, the 200-voice chorus is at the global summit of its art. Indeed, the ASO Chorus has become a regular with the mighty Berlin Philharmonic, performing when Runnicles, the ASO’s principal guest conductor, gets an invitation. (What’s the appeal? At the first Berlin Phil-ASO Chorus concert, in 2003, a Woodruff Arts Center fund-raiser gave me the historical perspective: “The pairing of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s orchestra with Robert Shaw’s chorus holds a powerful, magnetic attraction.”)
The two superbands will perform together next on Dec. 18-20 — again under Runnicles for the Brahms Requiem — in Berlin’s Philharmonie. For the ASO Chorus, these Symphony Hall performances are warm-ups for Berlin.
They’re almost ready. In the opening, the chorus sang “Selig sind” (“Blessed are”), from the Gospel of Matthew, in tones that were hushed, pure, perfectly calibrated yet supple. Throughout, Runnicles took rather slow tempos, firm yet relaxed, drawing from the orchestra three full dimensions of emotion. Long stretches of music were almost unbearably intense. Actually, the opening few movements were the best I’ve heard the ASO Chorus in several years — the high sopranos singing on a cushion of air, the tenors with a sweetness and buoyancy in their tone, the basses sturdy and enriching.
Baritone Matthew Worth (who sang Rossini opera highlights with the ASO at the summertime Encore Park) was in handsome voice — a young man’s voice — full of energy and promise and attention to detail.
Chen Reiss, making her local debut, was the aforementioned soprano soloist for “Ihr habt nun Traurigket.” Her voice sounds a bit like diva-of-the-moment Anna Netrebko’s. On the ironically climactic line “und habe grossen Trost gefunden” (“and found for myself much rest”), Reiss’ singing was radiant and clean, and she caressed the phrase with extreme dignity and a fetching femininity; in sum, a deluxe vocal package.
The sixth movement rises to forte cries of “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” Yet here the chorus sounded strident instead of comfortably triumphant, as if they were shouting. They recovered their composure almost immediately after, although they never found the perfect equilibrium that illuminated the opening movements. Still, the ASO Chorus brings a deep perspective to every performance of “A German Requiem.”
Runnicles and the orchestra opened the concert with Haydn’s Symphony No. 44, from the composer’s so-called “Sturm und Drang” period. This is genius stuff. Here Haydn is inventing the genre of the symphony as he goes: the thematic “cells” that replicate and develop, like DNA; the nimble, angular, piercing melodic lines; the endless sense of invention and wonder in the fast sections; the heart-felt adagio that anticipates slow movements from Beethoven to Mahler.
In Runnicles’ bracing, warm account, the symphony sounded philosophical, too. It seemed to represent a society that hums along naturally and harmoniously, like a beehive. It also hinted at the machine-tooled, motoring power that must have seemed alien to the ears of pre-industrial European listeners. The ASO played it like a hand-made craft, but also with a steely drive. Remarkably good Haydn, a highly memorable show.
A final note on the ASO Chorus’ performance in the German capital: the concert will be streamed over the Internet by the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall.