Even well played, requiem by Brahms lacks drama

October 17, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Brahms consistently avoided two things: matrimony and writing an opera. One could joke that he shied away from the dramatic in music just as he eschewed it in life -- and that might not be far from the truth.

For it is a fact that of the large-scale requiems in music, the Brahms "German Requiem" (so called because it sets to music the German of Martin Luther's translation of Holy Scripture rather than the Latin of the Roman Catholic service for the dead) is the least dramatic. Not for this composer the bizarre harmonies of Berlioz or the terrifying contrasts of Verdi.

Of course, the problem with the "German Requiem" is that it -- except for a superb funeral march in the second movement and some scarifying moments in the sixth -- too easily sounds square and pietistic. It is hard to imagine that H. L. Mencken, of all people, placed it "in the front rank of choral works . . . beside Bach's B Minor Mass." (But Mencken -- for all the sharpness of his tongue -- was just as bourgeois as Brahms.)

A great deal of the "German Requiem" bores me, and perhaps no performance -- not even the fine one that conductor Christopher Seaman, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and soprano Harolyn Blackwell and baritone William Stone gave last night in Meyerhoff Hall -- could have utterly convinced me of the greatness of the piece.

But Seaman is a very warm musician, and his performance (as well as a remarkably eloquent program note) declared his love of the "German Requiem." From the hushed pianissimo with which it begins to the peaceful conclusion, Seaman steered his orchestra, his chorus and his soloists in a sure voyage that touched upon the work's monumental and devotional aspects without ever coming close to danger. He paced the work beautifully; the fugatos were powerfully and clearly presented; individual moments were inflected without disturbing the line of the piece; the chorus sang clearly (even if its German diction was occasionally in doubt); and some of the individual playing in the orchestra was genuinely beautiful (particularly the subtle and powerful work of timpanist Dennis Kain in the tread of the second-movement march). Both of the soloists proved excellent: Stone, strong and assured; Blackwell, pure and sweetly vulnerable.

The program will be repeated at 8:15 p.m. today and at 3 p.m. tomorrow.

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