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A weighty Brahms Requiem leads to lightness of heart

Nov 14, 2014

By Lawrence Toppman

The most remarkable thing about Johannes Brahms' Requiem is that you can conduct and sing it however you want assuming you're passionate and make a profound effect.

It can soothe or arouse, set us gently into the hand of our forgiving God or shake us from spiritual lethargy. A conductor can surge forward, as Bruno Walter did, or move solemnly toward the quiet conclusion like Rudolf Kempe. (Those German maestros lead my two favorite recordings; the second one lasts 16 minutes longer than the first.)

Christopher Warren-Green took a measured, sometimes monumental view Friday at Belk Theater. Yet the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra remained focused, and the Oratorio Singers rode long, swelling waves of music without losing their focus or breath.

Warren-Green hired opera singers for the soprano and baritone parts, a smart move: Anna Devin and Russell Braun (who did most of the solo singing) balanced attractive tone with drama. Braun, especially, seemed transported by his vision of the last trumpet. In this piece, that blast of heavenly brass inspires joy rather than fear of damnation.

Brahms came from a Protestant tradition, not a Catholic one, and took texts from the Lutheran Bible rather than the Catholic Mass. (He wrote in German, not Latin.) And on this day of judgment, "death is swallowed up in victory."

Brahms began it after his mother died in February 1865, and the words promise eternal peace: "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy." And at the end, "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord."

Not all moods are calm: The triumph over death drove Brahms to write a rousing fugue, which the players and singers delivered fervently. But the composer wanted to send us away with a sense of unshakeable comfort, and Warren-Green underlined that mood at every chance.

Article at Charlotte Observer