Monday, December 28, 2015

December 30, 2009: Donald Runnicles meets Brahms in Berlin

When I wrote last month that Donald Runnicles would be visiting Berlin in December to conduct a performance of Johannes Brahms' German Requiem that included the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, soprano Genia Kühmeier, and bass-baritone Gerald Finley, I suggested that San Francisco audiences, particularly those of the San Francisco Opera, would be likely to find this concert interesting through the medium of the Digital Concert Hall.  Opera fans know that Runnicles spent many seasons equally comfortable with the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner, and Giacomo Puccini;  but Brahms' composition for both chorus and solo voice is in a class significantly removed from the world of opera.  Thus, while Runnicles is well credentialed in the concert hall, as well as the opera house, we in San Francisco have had few opportunities to appreciate those credentials.  Furthermore, having established, with the recent visit of the Berliner Philharmoniker to San Francisco, that their director, Sir Simon Rattle, is equally at home on both sides of the Wagner-Brahms opposition, I was personally curious as to how the conductor for our new San Francisco Ring would approach the other side of that opposition.

Having now seen his performance through the Digital Concert Hall archives, I am happy to report that Runnicles' command of Brahms is as secure as his command of Wagner.  This included managing the challenge of what was apparently a last-minute replacement of Helena Juntunen for Genia Kühmeier;  but there were no overt signs of this having been a substitution.  For one thing Brahms kept the vocal solos to a relative minimum, two for the bass-baritone and only one for the soprano.  The overall architecture of the composition is dominated by the interplay between chorus and orchestra, most of which involves an intense subtlety on both sides.  In the entirety of this ninety-minute work, there are really only two key elements of climax.

The first comes in two stages in a setting from Corinthians for the second movement.  The first is a stark rendering of the brevity of mortality, followed by a declaration of the power of the word of the Lord.  This requires a gradual building of energy that cannot be expended entirely on the first climax (which, to make matters more challenging, is repeated).  The second climax must shock the listener with the same sort of jolt originally intended by Paul.  This is probably as close to an operatic moment as Brahms gets in his entire repertoire, and Runnicles delivered it with all of the dramatic impact that it demanded.

The second climax comes in the penultimate movement with the same text of the Last Judgment that George Frideric Handel selected for the third part of his Messiah.  Given Brahms' interest in Handel, this could not have been a coincidence;  and, since this is a "German" requiem, it seems appropriate for Brahms to have turned to Handel to lead the way towards an alternative for the "Dies Irae" portion of the Requiem Mass.  However, while Handel focused his attention on the sound of the Last Trumpet, Brahms played down the brass work in preference for the overall agitation of the Judgment itself.  This is, again, highly dramatic material that flourished under Runnicles' direction.

This focus on climaxes should not detract from his overall conception of the performance, however.  In this composition Brahms uncovered subtleties in the alternation of the homophonic with the contrapuntal, selections for instrumentation, and even the underlying sense of a rhythmic pulse that constitutes the very first impression of the music.  That pulse is almost a measure of time in a setting in which time has lost its meaning, the time when consciousness of time has been lost, so to speak.  Brahms cut back on the number of climaxes to facilitate our listening to those subtleties, and Runnicles clearly understood the facilitation Brahms had in mind.  This opportunity to appreciate the talents of a familiar conductor in a repertoire unfamiliar to his audiences here makes a strong case for the value that cyberspace can bring to the serious listener.

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