The last time I heard Brahms‘ Requiem live was also with Herbert Blomstedt in the Musikverein with the Singverein… but a different orchestra. Then (2014) it was the Symphoniker (Vienna’s second-best orchestra, still maybe top ten in the world these days), the night before I moved to Salzburg. Tonight it was the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (top five, on a par with the Philadelphia Orchestra) in town for a visit. This is the same orchestra which gave the first complete performance of this work back in 1869 (no, Blomstedt was not conducting that night… although it almost feels like he should have been).
I remember that 2014 concert clearly, and although I had not planned to be in Vienna tonight, some workmen at home combined with a public holiday yesterday brought me here and a ticket (in my usual seat, no less) opened up for an otherwise sold out performance and beckoned me back.
The Gewandhaus Orchestra is somewhat more dainty than the Vienna Symphony, and Blomstedt was its music director from 1998-2005, making him quite familiar with its strengths. As a result, tonight’s concert was probably a little less driven than I remember the 2014 interpretation – possibly not as memorable. But Blomstedt milked the bittersweet tones from the woodwinds (it’s called a “requiem,” after all – although not a traditional one – yet it has a certain sweetness in the sorrow). The orchestra and chorus sounded delicate but still full – it’s a big piece, but cannot become overbearing. Restrained but at times exhuberant – indeed it looked like the measured Blomstedt almost started dancing at points – but at other points the tragedy nearly brought the house down.
We opened with the low strings, which quietly got the Musikverein’s floorboards vibrating, opening to an otherworldly choir. The tympani highlighted the swells, particularly in the second movement, to pure devastation. And the at times Blomstedt’s construction, and the implementation by orchestra and chorus, produced the foreboding effect of tolling bells.
Blomstedt stood to conduct (in contrast with this summer at the Festival, when he conducted sitting), but still moves a little more slowly than last year. He’s 90 years old: the twinkle in his eye does it all. The Gewandhaus Orchestra also has a throwback tone to another era (founded in 1781, this was Mendelssohn’s orchestra in the mid 1800s and one which guards its traditions well). Blomstedt knows that, and knew when to make this unusual work by Brahms sometimes more classical in nuance (if romantic in construction) playing on the orchestra’s strengths.
The Singverein blended perfectly with the Orchestra, as did baritone soloist Michael Nagy. The soprano, Hannah Morrison, seems not to have gotten the memo, however. Her voice is quite pretty at the lower volumes, but when she had to add more heft it became a tad bitter and forced. She seems to be a baroque specialist, and this work may just have been too much for her.