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Cleveland Orchestra bestills Vienna with Brahms' 'German Requiem'
By Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer
November 01, 2009, 6:31PM [Cleveland time - that's 12:31 am Vienna] Möst
VIENNA -- The customary response to exceptional performances is to erupt into applause more or less immediately. Sunday night at the , however, the audience did something a bit different.
As the final notes of Brahms' "A German Requiem" wafted to the ceiling, sent aloft by the Cleveland Orchestra and the Vienna Singverein, all under the direction of Möst, the sold-out house collectively held its breath, savoring the stillness before showering praise.
In part, this was a reflection of the sheer power of Brahms' grandest work, a massive gesture of consolation ending on the word "blessed."
But the reaction also spoke to the high caliber of the performance, the centerpiece of the orchestra's six-day residency in Vienna and the fruit of much labor. That the performance, the first of two, took place on All Saints' Day made the event doubly meaningful, while the sight of the historic Singverein chorus, forming a vast wall of humanity on the stage behind the orchestra, was unforgettable.
Only twice before Sunday's concert had the two ensembles rehearsed as one. Yet so unified were they in purpose, they sounded as if they'd been playing Brahms together for years.
Following a presentation of the work earlier this fall in Cleveland, the orchestra made first-rate collaborators here, mimicking vocalism and supporting the singers with utmost sensitivity. The Singverein, singing the German text as native speakers, was an expressive treat for American ears.
"Den alles Fleisch" ("For all flesh"), the second movement, was intimidating and comforting in equal measure, hinging on Paul Yancich's timpani and shaped by Welser-Möst so that each quality accentuated the other. "Selig sind die Toten" ("Blessed are the dead"), the finale, by contrast, embodied nothing but serenity.
Baritone Simon Keenlyside made for a dramatic vocal actor, sonorously imploring the heavens in "Herr, lehre doch mich" ("Lord, make me to know") and prophesying with conviction in the sixth movement. On his heels came the Singverein demanding with hurricane-like force an answer to "Death, where is thy sting?"
For her vital part, soprano delivered her hopeful message with radiant sincerity. The voice may not be big, but there's no question of its beauty.
A briefer, more stunned variety of pre-applause silence followed the first work on the program, Jörg Widmann's "Chor," a contemporary piece whose skillful but arduous exploration of acoustic space resonated with the Brahms and demonstrated the orchestra's interest in new music.
"Chor" also resonated rather nicely in the Musikverein. In between evocative passages for off-stage trumpet, instruments across the orchestra engaged in an alluring series of sonic tricks, passing single notes around the room without any discernible break. As trumpet turned into xylophone, then into violin, the effect in such a reverberant hall was bewitching.
It's an unforgiving piece for the musicians, demanding dovetailed transitions at the highest of pitches. But just like the Brahms, they conquered it.