A humanizing force: Rundfunkchor Berlin’s spellbinding Brahms Requiem in New York

New Yorkers filed in. Some grumbled about the airport-like check-in process. (Bags and shoes were left at the door.) No chairs were arrayed inside the Synod House of St John the Divine. The crowd was encouraged to sit anywhere, but many sought refuge around the hall’s perimeter. Once the lights dimmed, voices emerged from every direction: “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” (Blessed are they that mourn). The woman curled inconspicuously beside me on the floor revealed herself to be a most radiant soprano. Just a few feet behind her was an similarly concealed (and resplendent) alto. The members of the Rundfunkchor Berlin had fanned out among the jumbled crowd. The result was spellbinding.

As far as “experimental” performances go, this Brahms Requiem had a fairly simple premise. Director Jochen Sandig intended to “help us all view Brahms’ masterpiece from the inside — to contemplate the meaning of the text together, audience and performer alike.”

The lights remained low. Choir members arose and circled the room. Some embraced. Only the awe of hearing such unspoiled choral textures tempered my urge to sing along. There was nowhere to look but within. Wanting to be part of the action, some listeners descended from the room’s periphery to the main floor. Because the singers were without scores and dressed in street clothes, they were virtually indistinguishable from the audience. Chance encounters ensued.

The 60 singers were accompanied by Brahms’ piano transcription (arranged by Phillip Moll). Although it contains a veritable symphony in four hands, the piano part retains a spectral character, most pronounced at the opening of the second movement. Pianists Angela Gassenhuber and Philip Mayers set the tone well for the solemn march to follow. When the movement crystallized into a four-part harmony, singers suddenly processed together by voice part. Female singers carried a recumbent woman in a white dress to funeral ceremony. Sasha Waltz’s choreography felt wondrously effortless. Singers handed each audience member a small pillow to sit on. As the crowd lowered to the floor, a light beamed on soloist Konrad Jarnot, for his solo movement.

Mr Jarnot’s baritone was solid, if overly stoic. But his purpose suited the overall emphasis on group dynamics; he focused on his interaction with the choir as much as he did on his own delivery. Singers strode across the room, stepping around a sea of haphazardly strewn bodies, mirroring the intertwining lines of the movement’s choral fugue.

Before the fourth movement, a number of oversized swings lowered from the rafters. Choristers began to glide through the air, seemingly unfazed by the prospect of collision. Brahms called his a “human” requiem. It considers life over death, the human spirit over religious faith. The staging of this particular movement took such ideas to expressionistic heights. The singers defied gravity on their swings, making a home for themselves between the earthy and the divine. The white-clad woman who had been laid to rest earlier in the program reemerged. Soprano Marlis Petersen swung luxuriantly throughout the solo movement “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (And ye now therefore have sorrow). Her tone was one of ethereal perfection.

Brahms’ fifth movement (a later addition to the score) provides a deeply satisfying, structural symmetry. As the Berlin singers paced the room, frantically seeking a “continuing city” in the penultimate movement, they recalled — but also heightened — the anguished quality of the second movement. A few fleeting moments of excess marked the choreography here, and came at the expense of musicianship. The singers seemed off balance as they careened toward the unifying: “O death, where is thy sting?”

The tempo still felt a bit rushed at the beginning of the final movement. Conductor Simon Halsey and his co-conductor Nicolas Fink looked as though they had to fight back an encroaching army to slow down the pace. Thankfully, the work’s signature ascending vocal motif proved able to subdue any force.

It’s no small feat to sing a 70-minute work of this difficulty from memory. The ensemble had clearly internalized the text. (And Maestro Halsey mouthed nearly every word as he conducted). I have no shortage of praise for this concert’s technical aspects. But even more astonishing was the effect of being surrounded by human voices. As “Selig sind die Toten” (Blessed are the dead) drew to a close, I sat knee-to-knee with complete strangers, peering at the varied faces of the Berlin radio choristers. I could feel everyone in the room breathing as one.

Performers often speak of ecstatic moments. But that ecstasy doesn’t always transfer beyond the stage. This — the opening of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival — was an extraordinary effort to bridge the divide. I struggled to applaud afterward and to put on my shoes. All I wanted was to hear the piece again.


Originally published at bachtrack.com.