Shiver-inducing performances of beloved Brahms choral works

05.15.08
Helmuth Rilling
Pioneer Press

After an absence of four years, Helmuth Rilling has returned to conduct concerts by the Minnesota Orchestra - and, not surprisingly, it's mostly a choral program.

But it's without Bach, which may surprise some who are unaware that Rilling is also an expert on the romantic choral literature, particularly Brahms. This week, he's conducting an appropriately pared-down orchestra and the mighty Minnesota Chorale in a program that includes two of the most beautiful chorus/orchestra works of all time: "Nanie" and "Schicksalslied."

Both are by Brahms, of course, and are beloved by fans of choral music. They, in particular, will be delighted by the shiver-inspiring performances given to the two works. Of the many excellent choral groups in our area, the Minnesota Chorale has always struck me as particularly suited for the kind of rounded, uniformly textured part-singing that Brahms requires.

Some others do better with the Baroque and classical literature, but the Chorale's sturdily supported singing and fine balance - credit artistic director Kathy Saltzman Romey for developing this - results in a wonderful reading of Brahms. The female voices, in particular, can handle the kind of long-flowing eruptive melodic lines without strain and the aching harmonies between all the vocal parts are clearly and beautifully revealed.

Rilling's reading was sharply defined in Thursday's first performance, with exquisite balance between the instrumental and choral parts. He will celebrate his 75th birthday later this month, but his attention to detail remains formidable and his energy on the podium is vigorous.

The program also includes a somewhat less familiar work: Four Songs for Women's Voices, Two Horns and Harp. The first three are strophic songs that struck me as lovely - but forgettable, were it not for the interesting interactions with the essentially solo horns and harp. The final song, however, is highly intriguing, with odd rhythms and unusual harmonies.

The program opened with Schubert's Fourth Symphony, which is often programmed by chamber orchestras and is appropriately presented with a smaller instrumental complement for these concerts. Schubert affixed "Tragic" to the title of this symphony, but that description has never seemed entirely apt.

Rilling's interpretation was punchy and digging in the outside movements, exposing interior voices - particularly woodwinds - while not neglecting the lovely string lyricisms of the piece. The anything-but-tragic interior movements were highlights - particularly the singing second movement and the rhythmically off-beat Menuetto and its rustic trio. In all, it was a bright and transparent reading.