Brahms’ German Requiem Premiered at Carnegie Hall

CARNEGIE HALL, NEW YORK, MARCH 2, 2020

OK, it wasn’t exactly THAT kind of premiere, but it was the first performance of the German Requiem in a new critical edition by Brahms scholar Michael Musgrave, who contributed a thoughtful note to the program booklet about how this version differs from the one we normally hear. The answer: not much, save for cleaning up some spots in the old edition containing misprints, sorting out Brahms’ directions for the organ and contrabassoon, and adjusting the muted strings. Otherwise, it was the beautiful old German Requiem that we have all come to know and love.

The Oratorio Society of New York wields an impressively full chorus, and conductor Kent Tritle leads them like a choral conductor. In other words, he doesn’t pay enough attention to the orchestra. The performance, while respectable, certainly wasn’t great. Tritle refused to insist that his forces produce a true piano, resulting in a certain timbral monotony, and in louder passages his inability to clarify instrumental lines in contrapuntal textures (and give the brass section the opportunity to come forward) led to some cloudy climaxes. That said, the concluding movement was lovely, with the harps making a welcome contribution at the end.

The soloists, too, were mixed. Soprano Susanna Phillips sang her part in the fifth movement, which I like to translate as, “Oy, Have I Got Tsuris,” quite beautifully, and it would have been even more so had Tritle paid more attention to dynamic shading, especially of the lovely woodwind solos. Baritone Takaoki Onishi sang with a grainy timbre that made it difficult to distinguish individual pitches in his lower register. He was most effective in the powerful sixth movement, where the entire performance really came to life. I don’t want to sound too negative, though. The music is so compelling that it can’t fail to make an impression, and as the star of the show the chorus did itself proud. That was more than enough for the large and highly appreciative audience.

David Hurwitz