Brahms's German Requiem, performed last Sunday by James Conlon and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Prom 67), defies objectivity. Written in memory of the composer's mother, and of his friend Robert Schumann, it is as honest a picture of what we now call "the grieving process" as one could hope to find in music. Aside from its structural perfection, the exquisite inversions and diminutions, and the tidal flow of major and minor, its most striking quality is its tender accommodation of contradictions: the raw pain of loss, the need to hold on to the loved one who has died, the need to let them go, and the fragile consolation that love can outlast life. Though the modulations of the final movement describe an elevation, the focus is human, domestic, even: Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.
You'll have gathered by now that I brought my own baggage to Conlon's performance. But I doubt I'm alone in this. And I doubt that Brahms would disapprove of his audience remembering those they have lost, as opposed to finicking over minutiae of tone, tempo and phrasing. In fact, there was little to quibble about in this sincere and eloquent performance, and much that was very lovely. The woodwind playing was exceptionally beautiful, the timpani expressive, the defiant cries of "Wo? Wo ist dein Sieg?" from the BBC Symphony Chorus and the Philharmonia Chorus properly shattering, while Marie Arnet's heartfelt soprano solo and Simon Keenlyside's searing baritone solo were both moving. I have, I realise, all but forgotten poor old Zemlinsky's symphonic fantasy Die Seejungfrau, which preceded the Brahms, but that is hardly surprising.Reuse content