Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Brahms’s “Ein deutsches Requiem”
21 Oct 2017
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Heilig, Cantata for solo contralto, 2 mixed choirs and 2 orchestras, Wq 217 (9 min.)
Wiebke Lehmkuhl contralto, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Gijs Leenaars chorus master
Ein deutsches Requiem, op. 45 (83 min.)
Hanna-Elisabeth Müller soprano, Markus Werba baritone, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Gijs Leenaars chorus master
Yannick Nézet-Séguin in conversation with Emmanuel Pahud (13 min.)
“I am completely satisfied with your Requiem,” wrote Clara Schumann enthusiastically to Johannes Brahms, who juxtaposed the tragedy of human mortality with the comfort and hope of eternal life in the work. “It is a very powerful piece, and grips the whole person in a way that little else does. The deep seriousness, together with all the magic of poetry has a wonderful, harrowing and soothing effect.” With his German Requiem, Brahms had not created ecclesiastical liturgical music in the classical sense. Rather, the work is a choral cantata based on freely chosen excerpts from the Lutheran Bible which revolve around the basic dualism of life and death, mourning and comfort, transience and transfiguration. There are no intercessions, which are otherwise prominently represented in the Catholic Latin text. Brahms also omits any mention of the redemption of Christ, which is central to the two denominations – something which caused problems at the time: “My Requiem is sung in Bremen every year. But since the name Christ does not occur in it, permission to use the Church is granted only on condition that this deficiency is remedied by a financial contribution.” Textually and musically, each of the seven movements ultimately makes clear just what it is that makes the comforting overall character of this interdenominational requiem: “Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, future successor to James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, now conducts Brahms’s Deutsches Requiem in the Berlin Philharmonie. In addition to the orchestra, the performers include the Rundfunkchor Berlin, rehearsed by its chief conductor Gijs Leenaars. The soprano soloist is Hanna-Elisabeth Müller who recently made her debut at the Met. At her side is Wiebke Lehmkuhl who debuted at the Vienna Musikverein and the Lucerne Festival in 2011, and made her first guest appearance at the Salzburg Festival one year after. The demanding baritone role is taken by the Austrian singer Markus Werba.
The concert opens with Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s motet “Heilig ist Gott”, composed in 1776 – a ceremonial theophany for contralto, double choir and orchestra, which occasioned the Bach son to employ the full range of tonality at his disposal. Despite its masterful design, the music conveys an impression of the greatest simplicity: “This ʻHeiligʼ,” according to the composer, “is an attempt ... to attract far greater attention and sensation through ordinary harmonic progressions than any anguished chromaticism is able to achieve. It is my swan song ..., and should serve to ensure that after my death I am not too soon forgotten.”
The Human Being as the Focus of Religious Music
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: “So that I may not so soon be forgotten in the future”
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s career was a perfect example of middle-class emancipation: born the son of the “old Bach” near the end of the Baroque era, he studied in Leipzig and served at the court of the Prussian King Frederick II for 30 years. In 1768 he succeeded Georg Philipp Telemann as music director of the emergent bourgeois Hanseatic city of Hamburg. By that time his fame far surpassed that of his father. Bach’s duties in this position included composing music for the five Lutheran churches, although for the most part – pragmatically and in keeping with contemporary practice – he used the pasticcio technique, that is, he “recycled” by revising older works or borrowed from colleagues.
The Heilig, composed in 1776, is one of only five works with choir that were published during Bach’s lifetime. The composer made it clear to his publisher Breitkopf that this brief but profound work was particularly important to him, since he believed he had “put the greatest and boldest effort” into it and added that it “should (perhaps) be the last of this type, so that I may not so soon be forgotten in the future”. He later described in more concrete terms what this boldness referred to: “This Heilig is an attempt to inspire far greater attention and sentiment through entirely natural and ordinary harmonic progressions than one can attain with any amount of nervous chromaticism.”
One is struck first by the scoring, designed to produce a particular spatial effect, for two mixed choirs and two orchestras. Bach precedes the double-choir section, which is based on the German text of the Sanctus, with an introductory arietta for alto solo that drew criticism not only for its lack of a liturgical function. “The florid and ornate singing does not belong in the church at all,” Johann Friedrich Reichardt’s Musikalisches Kunstmagazin commented in 1787. The arietta is of great importance for the effect of the Heilig, however, since it not only explains that a choir of angels and a choir of nations enter into a dialogue in the following section ̶ it is above all the contrasting effect of the transition which makes one sit up and take notice. The modulation from the G major of the pastoral arietta to E major – in which the choir of angels begins expansively and softly, as though from afar – creates an ethereal, otherworldly effect. The “Heilig”, on the other hand, resounds wildly from the choir of nations, in D major fortissimo and accompanied by a majestic dotted rhythm, and is answered by the subdued piano of the angels, like an echo. Bach uses unexpectedly abrupt harmonic changes – the opposite of “nervous chromaticism” – and extreme contrasts in dynamics and contour not only to accentuate the words but to actually achieve expressiveness through musical sounds and – entirely in keeping with the aesthetic of Empfindsamkeitsentiment, sensitivity – “first and foremost to touch the heart”, as he had stipulated in his keyboard textbook Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. The content of the text recedes into the background in favour of an uncompromising expression of emotion; the music emancipates itself from its purely supporting role and, instead of religiously ritualized praise to God, shifts the focus to the sympathetic mortals. The choirs, initially perceived as far apart, finally join forces with a fugue in “pure” C major above the cantus firmus “Lord God, we praise thee”. Praise to God resounds throughout the two choirs as though from countless voices on all sides – literally heaven on earth for the sensitive congregation.
Johannes Brahms: “For here we have no continuing city”
The history of the origins of Johannes Brahms’s German Requiem is not entirely understandable to this day. The autograph shows that the composer notated all the movements on different types and sizes of paper – he obviously had no clear plan in mind that simply had to be implemented. Instead, he seems to have worked for years on the appropriate form for an idea that was very important to him personally, namely, the musical confrontation with the themes of death and transience. The result is a work which avoids all liturgical functionality – it is neither mass nor cantata nor oratorio.
Concerning the biblical texts Brahms observed that he had chosen them as a composer, not as a theologian. In fact, when compiling them, along with his intuition he was also able to rely on the references in his personal copy of the Luther Bible, which linked thematically related passages with small asterisks. Thus, for example, the sections of the opening “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4) and “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy” (Psalm 126:5) are shown to be related. It is striking that, in contrast to the “eternal rest” of the dead prayed for in the introit of the liturgical requiem (Requiem aeternam), Brahms focusses on suffering and earthly struggles. There is no mention of death yet; instead, the sufferers are promised consolation. Not until the following sombre funeral march, which depicts death as a merciless leveller, is the transience of earthly life addressed, but the contrasting, flowing major key section also urges patience and trust in the “coming of the Lord”. The general “vanitas” theme of the funeral march is then individualized in the solitary voice of the baritone: “Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days on earth.” The chorus faces the plaintive man as an imaginary congregation which reassures him with a powerful fugue: “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.” In a symmetrical analogy to the second and third movements, the fifth and sixth sections also form a pair which confront the oppressive environment of earthly existence. A high point of emotional intimacy is reached in the soprano solo “You now have sorrow”. The comforting mother of the text is (super)humanized – the original Biblical context (Isaiah 66:13) refers to the city of Jerusalem, which nurtures its inhabitants like children. The sixth movement “For here we have no continuing city” focusses on mortality and at first recalls the second section with its striding style. The suggestion of a Dies Irae follows (“For the trumpet shall sound”) together with the promise of a transformation of the dead, depicted harmonically.
At this point it becomes most obvious that Brahms went his own way with his “human” Requiem. The thematic symmetry mentioned above is also found in a similar form in the liturgical requiem. But at the centre of his German Requiem, where in the mass for the dead the sequence with its terrifying depictions of Judgement Day that inspired so many composers to dramatic settings would be heard, Brahms placed the peaceful vision of the heavenly Elysium with “How lovely is thy dwelling place”. Death is not the consequence of human sinfulness but part of a natural cycle (“For all flesh is as grass”). Neither repentance nor the redemption of Christ plays a role in this context. Brahms’s Requiem is intended to comfort the suffering and take away the fear of death; it is not a mass that pleads for divine mercy for the dead but a work for the living.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin studied piano, conducting, composition and chamber music in his native city of Montreal as well as choral conducting in Princeton; he continued his training with Carlo Maria Giulini. He is music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra; in addition he has also served as artistic director and principal conductor of the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal since 2000. In Europe he has appeared with major orchestras including the Staatskapelle Dresden and Berlin, the Orchestre National de France, Tonhalle Zurich, the Vienna Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, whose principal guest conductor he was from 2008 until 2014. Yannick Nézet-Séguin has also achieved great success as an opera conductor, with Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s Don Carlo and La traviata at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and Janáček’s The Makropulos Case and Puccini’s Turandot at the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam. He made his debut at the Salzburg Festival in 2008 with Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and returned with Mozart’s Don Giovanni in 2010 and 2011. In 2012 he made his debut at London’s Royal Opera House Covent Garden with Dvořáks Rusalka. The conductor has received numerous awards, among them the Royal Philharmonic Society Award and the National Arts Centre Award from the Canadian government. He was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Quebec in Montreal ( 2011), the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (2014) and Westminster Choir College of Rider University (2015). His first appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker was in October 2010 with works by Messiaen, Prokofiev and Berlioz. In June 2016 he conducted the orchestra in works by Bartók and Shostakovich, and also at the Waldbühne concert with works by Smetana and Dvořák.
Hanna-Elisabeth Mueller studied under Rudolf Piernay and attended master classes given by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Julia Varady and Thomas Hampson. From 2012 to 2016 she was a member of the ensemble at Bayerische Staastsoper where she appeared in roles including Pamina, Susanna, Gretel, Zdenka and Sophie (Massenet’s Werther). Her international breakthrough came in 2014 with her sensational performance as Zdenka in Richard Strauss’s Arabella at the Salzburg Easter Festival with Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson under the baton of Christian Thielemann; shortly afterwards, she was honoured by Opernwelt magazine as young artist of the year. In March 2017, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as Marzelline in Jürgen Flimm’s production of Fidelio. This was followed in May by her opera and role debut as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni at La Scala in Milan directed by Robert Carsen. She has also been a guest on the concert stages of philharmonic halls in Essen, Cologne and Paris as well as at the opening of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. With her regular piano accompanist Juliane Ruf, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller often gives recitals, including at the Heidelberger Frühling, the De Singel Antwerpen, and the RheinVokal festival. The soprano now makes her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.
Wiebke Lehmkuhl, born in Oldenburg, received her vocal training from Ulla Groenewold and from Hanna Schwarz at the Hamburg University of Music and Theatre. After guest engagements at Kiel Opera House and the state operas of Hamburg and Hanover, she joined Zurich Opera as a permanent ensemble member in the 2008/09 season. Here she appeared as Erda (Der Ring des Nibelungen), Magdalene (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), Annina (Der Rosenkavalier), Hedwige (Guillaume Tell), and in concert performances of Handel’s Messiah and Schumann’s oratorio Paradise and the Peri. The contralto has also appeared at renowned opera houses such as the Opéra Bastille in Paris and at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. In 2012, she made her debut at the Salzburg Festival as third lady in a new production of Mozart’s Zauberflöte. The following year, she performed there again in a concert performance of Walter Braunfels’ Jeanne d’Arc in the role of Lison. Wiebke Lehmkuhl is also successful as a concert and oratorio singer. In 2011 she made her debut at the Vienna Musikverein and at the Lucerne Festival in performances of Handel’s La resurrezione, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Among the conductors she has also worked with are Reinhard Goebel, Daniel Harding, René Jacobs, Marc Minkowski and Kent Nagano. Wiebke Lehmkuhl made her debut in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 2013 in Schumann’s Faust Scenes, conducted by Daniel Harding. She last appeared with the orchestra in December 2016 in Bruckner’s F minor Mass, conducted by Christian Thielemann.
Markus Werba studied at the Carinthian State Conservatorium in Klagenfurt and at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna under Ralf Döring. He also took lessons with Robert Holl, Walter Berry and Gerhard Kahry. The baritone, who has won first prizes at several international competitions, made his debut in 2005 in the role of Papageno at the Salzburg Festival, where he also received acclaim for his performances as Beckmesser (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) in 2013. He has also appeared in the same role at the Staatsoper unter den Linden Berlin under the direction of Daniel Barenboim. Markus Werba performs at the world’s most prestigious opera houses, including the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House in London, Bayerische Staatsoper, Los Angeles Opera, Opéra Lyon, the Châtelet in Paris, the Metropolitan Opera New York, Suntory Hall in Tokyo and the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. In addition, he gives recitals at, among others, the Wigmore Hall in London, the Musikverein in Vienna, the Mozarteum in Salzburg and at the Schubertiade in Hohenems. The baritone is also much in demand on the concert stage and has worked with conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Ivor Bolton, Kent Nagano, Riccardo Muti and James Levine. These concerts mark Markus Werba’s first guest appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker.
The Rundfunkchor Berlin(Berlin Radio Choir) is a regular guest at major festivals and the chosen partner of international orchestras and conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Christian Thielemann and Daniel Barenboim. In Berlin the choir has long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The exceptional breadth of its repertoire, its stylistic versatility, delight in experimentation, stunning responsiveness and richly nuanced sound all contribute to making it one of the world’s outstanding choral ensembles. Its work is documented by many recordings and awards, including three Grammy Awards. With its experimental project series, in collaboration with artists from diverse disciplines, the Rundfunkchor Berlin is breaking down the classical concert format and adopting new modes of choral music for a new audience: e.g. the interactive scenic version of Brahms’s German Requiem staged by Jochen Sandig / Sasha Waltz & Guests attracted great attention. With annual activities such as the Sing-along Concert and the “Liederbörse” (Song Exchange) for children and young people or the education programme SING! the choir invites people of various walks of life to the world of singing. Academy and Schola support the next generation of professionals. Founded in 1925 the ensemble was shaped by conductors including Helmut Koch, Dietrich Knothe, Robin Gritton and Simon Halsey (2001-2015). As of the 2015/16 season Gijs Leenars took over as new principal conductor and artistic director. The Rundfunkchor last appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in August 2017 in a performance of Haydn’s Creation conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.