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A radiant “German Requiem” at the May Festival

James Conlon

By Janelle Gelfand

Unlike the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead, a prayer for departed souls, Brahms’ choral masterpiece “A German Requiem” as is a work of peace and reflection for those who are left behind.

On Friday night, James Conlon led the May Festival Chorus, two extraordinary soloists and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in a performance of singular beauty of this great work. The Requiem was part of a “Three B’s” program — Bach, Beethoven and Brahms – that showcased the excellence of the dedicated chorus under its director, Robert Porco. The entire program, sung before a fair-sized crowd in Music Hall, was sung in German, which reminded listeners of the roots of this unique choral festival, founded in 1873.

The festival has presented Brahms’ “A German Requiem” at least a dozen times, beginning in 1884. Rather than filled with the terror of the Last Judgment, it is deeply personal. For its seven parts, the 34-year-old Brahms chose texts from the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, which travel from mourning through consolation and the hope of heavenly peace.

The choral sound glowed with warmth and refined beauty in the finest performance of this work in memory. The dynamic and expressive scope of the chorus was impressive. The singers set a spiritual mood in its opening movements, projecting a plush, refined ensemble and conveying the texts vividly.

“Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras” (“For all flesh is as grass”) grew atmospherically from a dark, foot-dragging dirge to a song of affirmation and joy. There were powerful, clipped enunciations of texts such as “O death, where is thy sting?” Moments of counterpoint and choral fugue were clear, energized and thrilling.

And the simple, hymn-like beauty of “Wie lieblich” (“How lovely are your dwelling places”) was unforgettable.

The two soloists, soprano Nicole Cabell and bass-baritone John Relyea, made memorable festival debuts. Cabell projected a radiant voice and genuine emotion in her solo, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (“Ye now have sorrow”). Relyea brought an arresting intensity and dark color to his solos.

Conlon perfectly captured the emotional sweep of this music, as he led in a seamless arc from beginning to end. His was a heartfelt performance, both reverential yet with moments of dramatic flair that energized the forces. The orchestral sound was beautifully integrated, and orchestral soloists made refined contributions. In particular, the string sound shone.

The final movement was mesmerizing, with the choral sound fresh and light as the work moved from the depths, sung against low trombones, to the heavens.

The evening opened with the festival’s first-ever performance of J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 192, “Nun danket all Gott” (“Now thank we all our God”). The smaller May Festival Chorus Chamber Choir was joined by soloists Cabell and baritone William McGraw, a voice professor at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

What a joy it was to hear Bach, which worked wonderfully, despite the vastness of Music Hall’s space.  Conlon cultivated a bright sound and stylish phrasing for his forces. The chorus was buoyant and clear, even during moments of tricky counterpoint. Cabell projected a flexible, expressive voice, and McGraw richly communicated his lines.

Beethoven, who was enamored with the poet Goethe, set two verses as a brief cantata for chorus and orchestra, “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.” It is a brief tone poem, and the performance was atmospheric.
Before the concert, Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba performed an engaging recital of songs by Rachmaninoff, Dargomyzhsky, Tchaikovsky and Glinka. (We will look forward to hearing her tonight, in the Tchaikovsky program.)