Brahms’s Requiem with Donald Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony Chorus

20 Dec 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Donald Runnicles

Marie-Pierre Langlamet, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus

  • Sebastian S. Currier
    TRACES, concerto for solo harp and orchestra (première) (31 min.)

    Marie-Pierre Langlamet Harp

  • Johannes Brahms
    A German Requiem, op. 45 (75 min.)

    Helena Juntunen Soprano, Gerald Finley Bass Baritone, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Norman Mackenzie Chorus Master

  • free

    Donald Runnicles in conversation with Fergus McWilliam (16 min.)

It is Brahms of all people, the aloof North German, who has given us perhaps the most human of requiems. In contrast to the Catholic requiem mass, it is not the vision of the Last Judgement which forms the core of the work but succour for those in despair, which is suggested from the very first line: “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” It is this central concept, besides the splendour of the music, which has ensured the continuing popularity of Brahms’s German Requiem.

This performance by the Berliner Philharmoniker, under the baton of Donald Runnicles, is particularly appealing due to the participation of the Atlanta Symphony Chorus. The choir has partnered the orchestra on several occasions in the past and has always impressed with its sophisticated sound. Also following this guest appearance, the Tagesspiegel wrote: “You can hardly believe your ears when the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus raises its voice in the Philharmonie. It develops a stylistic sensibility that anticipates the angular density of Mahler’s Eighth, and later, with gentle optimism, makes it sound as if it were a piece by Mendelssohn. ... Loud cheers for the exceptional singers from Atlanta.”

The Philharmoniker have also worked for several years with composer Sebastian Currier. Following a number of chamber performances, the orchestra, with Marie-Pierre Langlamet as soloist, performs the première of Currier’s Harp Concerto. In doing so, they present one of the most interesting American composers of his generation, whose musical language was once characterised by the Washington Post as “lyrical, colourful, firmly rooted in tradition, but absolutely new”.

A concerto and a non-traditional Requiem

Lyricism of a very special kind: Traces by Sebastian Currier

This is not the first time that music by Sebastian Currier has been performed in the Philharmonie. In March 2004, his Night Time for violin and harp formed part of a chamber recital; in October 2005 the orchestra devoted an entire concert to his work; and a year later Marie-Pierre Langlamet and the Oriol Ensemble gave the world premiere of Broken Minuets. This evening’s piece is also a world premiere, having been commissioned by the Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker. Common to all these performances is Marie-Pierre Langlamet. She and Currier have known each other for more than twenty years, although it was not until 1998 that we find the first trace of a harp in Currier’s work-list. This was the date of Night Time. In Remix (2005), the harp was part of an ensemble involving no fewer than ten players, while Crossfade, also written in 2005, is a dialogue for two harps. Dating from 2006, Broken Minuets may be described as a mini-concerto for string orchestra. Finally, in Traces, the harp is raised to the level of a soloist at the very heart of a full symphony orchestra.

Reading through the score and listening to it in advance of its first performance, one can identify several elements typical of Currier’s earlier work: first, there is the basically lyrical mood and, in contrast to it, a kind of carefree recklessness; then there is a bright, almost impressionistic atmosphere often based on whole-tone harmonies; and finally there is the eminently accessible melodic writing constructed around diatonic intervals. This repackaging of familiar elements invites us to interpret the work’s title as a search for forensic evidence. Moreover, when the piece is compared to Night Time, striking points of convergence emerge. Night Time, too, is a five-movement work, the first, third and fifth movements, with their twilight atmosphere, being clearly contrasted with the other two, which are notable for their changing tempos and their greater rhythmic and dynamic intensity. In the present piece, the three lyrical movements are headed “Fragmented”, “Resonant” and “Distant”. (“Fragmented” was also the heading of the fourth movement of the piano quintet Static of 2003.) All three are not only related in terms of their character and thematic language, they also form part of a climactic structure that culminates in the fifth and final movement. The musical material that had been fragmented in the opening movement acquires a full-toned resonance in the middle movement, before being recalled in the final movement as something distant and reserved. Diametrically opposed to these three movements are the second and fourth, headed, respectively, “Angular” and “Racing”. Here, too, there is an increase in tension reflected in the adjectives chosen by the composer. They, too, have precedents in his output in both Broken Minuets and Night Time. A second meaning of “Traces” is a vestigial amount of something, and it may well be this alternative reading that brings us closer to the work’s fundamental character. After all, one of the concerto’s most striking qualities is the spareness of its textures, coupled with the composer’s ability to use such economical resources to create music that is so full of tension and so instantly affecting. The conductor Hugh Wolff, who has been familiar with Currier’s work since he gave the first performance of Microsymph in 1997, undoubtedly hit the nail on the head when he called this music “witty, mischievous and ironic”, adding that it is “music that smiles at its audience”.

A work to console mourners: Brahms’s German Requiem

The title makes it clear to us and the sung words from the Bible confirm that this Requiem is not a Mass for the Dead. It differs not only formally from the Requiems of the Roman Catholic tradition, it also, and above all, differs from them in terms of its content. Brahms’s interest is not in the dead but in their grieving survivors. The death we must fear is not our own but that of the people we lose. It is at this point that the words of the opening section begin, words taken from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are they that mourn.” This same music also brings the work to an end, albeit with different words, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord”, taken from the Book of Revelations. In each case the emphasis is on the word “blessed”, thus forging a link between the beginning and end of the work and providing it with its overall structure. To be blessed is to sense the presence of God. That is the promise that lay close to Brahms’s heart.

The opening movement strikes a note of gentle consolation, offering listeners the calm certainty that they will find comfort. Based on a pedal point on F, it resembles nothing so much as the beating of a human heart. The uplift that comes at the line “Come again with rejoicing” is underlined by the shift to the submediant, D flat major, which is also retained in the recapitulation, before the home key of F major is restored as the movement dies gently away. The opening of the second movement is wan and lifeless, contralto, tenor and bass entering in unison in B flat minor and introducing the theme of a powerful passacaglia: “For all flesh is as grass.” But the funeral procession gains an increasingly clement aspect, ending in “joy and gladness”.

Not until the third movement is the personal pronoun “I” first heard at the words “Lord, make me to know mine end”. Brahms uses the occasion to introduce the baritone soloist. This is also one of the few passages in which the choir on which huge demands are otherwise placed is allowed a moment’s respite. But the moment of rest soon passes, for in the following chorale it takes up the soloist’s words. Soloist and chorus continue to engage in dialogue until a sudden cry of anguish alters the scene and the singers are again made aware of the futility of human endeavour. This movement ends with an impressive, broadly flowing fugue (“But the souls of the righteous”).

In their gestural language and pensive, contemplative atmosphere, the fourth and fifth movements recall Brahms’s lieder, so it is unsurprising that at the line “And ye therefore now have sorrow” the soprano soloist takes centre stage. After this idyll, the drama of the sixth movement, with its vision of the Last Judgement, is all the more compelling. The struggle is depicted with bitter coldness, and yet it leads not to damnation but to a sense of triumph. At the word “victory” Brahms introduces an emphatic final cadence, the overwhelming effect of the C major climax comparable to the one achieved by Haydn at the word “light” in The Creation. Once again, a fugue brings this movement to an end. Brahms was fully aware of his debt to tradition and he duly observes the expected Abgesang, or aftersong, and the reminiscence of the beginning, both of which leave their mark on this final section of the work, the musical argument of which is resolved in a consolatory F major tonality.

In his choice of passages from the Bible, Brahms consciously avoids all reference to Christ the Redeemer. In this respect his religious thinking reflects the liberal Protestantism of a writer like Friedrich Schleiermacher, for whom the connection between sin and death was no longer as inevitable as it once had been. In turn, this means that death may be seen not as a fall from grace but as an integral part of Creation. Brahms had no need of Christ’s sacrifice. Death affects him as an existential dilemma that cannot be resolved by any soteriological construct. He wants to face God as his Creator, not as his judge. This is one of the reasons why his German Requiem offers its listeners such abiding comfort – even those of us who do not yet have cause to grieve.

Helge Jung

Translation: Stewart Spencer

Donald Runnicles was born in Scotland and educated in London and Cambridge. After first engagements at the theatres of Mannheim, Hanover and Freiburg, he became Music Director of the San Francisco Opera in 1992, where, at the close of his tenure in summer 2009, he was awarded the San Francisco Opera Medal. In September 2009 Donald Runnicles took up his appointment as General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony. Furthermore he is Music Director of the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming and Principal Guest Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. In addition, he is a frequent guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the North German Radio Orchestra, Hamburg (NDR), and Bavarian Radio Orchestra, Munich, as well as the Orchestre de Paris and the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Vienna and the Israel Philharmonic. He appears annually in Great Britain at both the BBC London Proms and the Edinburgh Festival and equally works each year at the Vienna State Opera. He has also led productions in the opera houses of Amsterdam, Berlin, Cologne, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Milan, Munich, Paris and Zurich. Since his debut in November 2003 with Britten’s War Requiem Donald Runnicles has returned regularly as guest conductor to the Berliner Philharmoniker. His last performance with the orchestra was in May 2008, when he conducted Hector Berlioz’ Requiem. Among his awards are the Order of the British Empire (2004) and an honorary degree from Edinburgh University.

Marie-Pierre Langlamet was born in Grenoble (France). She received her first musical training at the Nice Conservatoire with Elisabeth Fontan-Binoche, later participating in master classes given by Jacqueline Borot and Lily Laskine. She was only 17 when she was engaged as principal harp in the Nice Opera Orchestra, but a year later she gave up this position to continue her studies in Philadelphia at the Curtis Institute. From 1988 until she joined the Berliner Philharmoniker five years later, she was deputy principal harpist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York. Marie-Pierre Langlamet appears all over the world as a soloist with leading orchestras and chamber ensembles, and she also gives numerous solo recitals. Since 1995 she has taught in the Orchestra Academy. In June 2009, Marie-Pierre Langlamet was made Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. She has already premiered several works by Sebastian Currier in chamber music concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation.

Helena Juntunen graduated from the Sibelius-Academy in Helsinki where she was taught by Anita Välkki. During her long and close association with Finnish National Opera and through numerous guest performances in concert venues all over the world, Helena Juntunen has acquired a multi-faceted repertoire that includes Mozart, Rossini, Bizet, Puccini, Strauss, Szymanowski, Korngold, Berg and Weill as well as works by contemporary Finnish composers. In August 2008 she created the role of Anna Liisa in Veli-Matti Puumala’s opera of the same title. She has received particular acclaim for her portrayal of Pamina in Mozart’s Magic Flute, a role she performed at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, the Vienna Festival, the Grand Théâtre de Genève and the Semperoper in Dresden. In concert Helena Juntunen is widely acknowledged for her interpretations of Finnish vocal repertoire, particularly the works of Jean Sibelius. This is Helena Juntunen’s debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

The Canadian baritone Gerald Finley began singing as a chorister in Ottawa and completed his musical studies at King’s College in Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music in London. His debut at the Glyndebourne Festival, where he played Sid in Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring, led to engagements at the world’s major opera and concert venues like the Teatro Regio Parma, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, the New York Metropolitan Opera, the Opéra National in Paris as well as the festivals in Glyndebourne and Salzburg. In opera,Gerald Finley has sung all the major baritone roles of Mozart (particularly the Count in Figaro); his expanding repertoire also includes critical successes as Eugene Onegin, Yeletsky and as Golaud in Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande, all at Covent Garden. In contemporary opera, he has excelled in creating leading roles such as Jaufré Rudel in Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin and Harry Heegan in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie. For the latter he won the Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Singers. As a recitalist, Gerald Finley works regularly with pianist Julius Drake. In concert he performs with leading conductors including Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Bernard Haitink and Sir Simon Rattle. Since his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1994, he has returned several times. Most recently he was invited by the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation to perform an evening of song with works by Schumann, Ravel, Ives and Barber.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, 200 voices strong, can be counted among the most renowned non-professional concert choirs in the U.S. It was established in 1970 by the long-time principal conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Shaw, and performs music of the Baroque and Classical eras, as well as works by modern masters such as Tavener, Pärt, Poulenc and Britten. The Chorus has become an important part of the Orchestra’s programming and made its Carnegie Hall debut in 1976. In 1988, it accompanied the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on its first European tour, performing in Paris, London, Zurich and in East Berlin. Together they took part in the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games, broadcast worldwide. Since 1999, Norman Mackenzie has sustained the successful work of the late Robert Shaw. The Chorus’ artistic achievements have been rewarded with the Governor’s Award of the State of Georgia in 1989 and with several Grammy Awards for exceptional CD recordings. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus has also twice travelled to Germany to be a guest of the Berliner Philharmoniker: in December 2003 with Britten’s War Requiem and in May 2008 with Berlioz’ Requiem, both trips with conductor Donald Runnicles. This journey of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus is supported by Delta Air Lines, Miss Alice Ann Hamilton (in memory of Dr. Charles Hamilton) and The Halle Foundation.

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