CD – BRAHMS: Ein Deutsches Requiem

New from Telarc, a performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra,
conducted by Robert Spano

Featuring Twyla Robinson and Marius Kwiecien

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has won 26 Grammy Awards and recorded over 100 albums. With their new release of Johannes Brahms’ EIN DEUTSCHES REQUIEM comes a beautiful and timely addition to Telarc’s 30-year history of fine Classical recordings. Conductor Robert Spano leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in what is universally praised as Brahms’ choral masterpiece. Avoiding all association with the Catholic Requiem Mass – including liturgical structure and any mention of purgatory, the fires of Hell, or the salvific power of Jesus Christ – Brahms instead fashions his text from challenging and conciliatory passages from the Old and New Testaments along with the Book of Revelation to create his German Requiem. “As far as the title is concerned,” said the composer, “I confess that I would gladly omit the word ‘German’ and instead use ‘Human’.” In that spirit, many will recall that it was Brahms’ Requiem which was chosen for the Memorial Concert – a “Live From Lincoln Center” broadcast from Avery Fisher Hall – Thursday evening following the attack on the World Trade Center. A fitting period of reflection and contemplation was needed; a time-out was called. The unifying, secular tone of Brahms’ Requiem proved to be the agreeable solution. This splendid recording from ASO, featuring soprano Twyla Robinson and baritone Marius Kwiecien, captures the nuances of the text and the intentions of the composer. With complete sensitivity to his audience, conductor Robert Spano unravels the inner murmuring of communal distress, the conflicts of being and purpose, and then provides an arena for mutual blessing.

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JOHANNES BRAHMS and ROBERT SPANO.
Photo, Jeff Roffman.

EIN DEUTSCHES REQUIEM is comprised of seven movements. The first and last reflect each other in a reciprocal exchange of somber benediction. Following a brief orchestral introduction, the chorus enters with the work’s overall controlling message – from the BEATITUDES, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Mr. Spano makes ultimate use of the somber atmosphere by introducing the voices as though rays of the sun revealing the remains of the day. The text is hushed, the consonants gently piercing through the progressing harmony, until the high sopranos lightly swell and quickly diminish – “selig sind, selig sind” – “Blessed are they”. The text moves to the promise of consolation and joy found in PSALM 125:5,6 – “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.” Each movement concludes with the trailing strings of a harp, guiding the listener from anxious anticipation to peaceful resolve.

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Some listeners will find the second movement to be the most intriguing. Conductor Spano brings out the inherent theatricality of the work. The opening moody atmosphere suggests time and place. The texts wander through a sense of futility described in 1 PETER 1:24 – “For all men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall.” As it progresses, the tempos intertwine dance and dirge, thus a leaning towards character development and a growing sense of communal awareness. The movement resolves with interjections of joy and hope from ISAIAH bolstered by sounds of triumph from the brass section.

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MARIUSZ KWIECIEN, Baritone – As Count Almaviva, Metropolitan Opera, 2005

Polish Baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is the perfect choice as soloist for the third and sixth movements. He becomes the Hero that steps forward and shakes an angry fist at God: “Show me, O Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath.” [PSALM 39: 4, 5] In the sixth movement Brahms assigns the baritone leadership and wisdom as he declaims a familiar passage from CORINTHIANS: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” Mr. Kwiecien is the ideal Leading Man. He embodies the allure of Casanova and the energy of a David or Joshua. He opened the 2007-08 Season of San Francisco Opera in the title role of Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI. This past September he repeated the role at Royal Opera House Covent Garden and sang “Eugene Onegin” at the Paris Opera (Palais Garnier). Between December 2008 and January 2009 he will be at New York’s Metropolitan Opera as “Marcello” in La Boheme and as “Enrico” in Lucia Di Lammermoor. On November 1st and 3rd of 2007 Mariusz Kwiecien appeared with the Atlanta Symphony in Brahms’ Requiem. Vocal soloists in symphonic literature generally remain on-stage, seated on either side of the conductor, facing the audience. Their contribution to the evening includes much more than the moments where they actually stand and sing. Mr. Kwiecien is a stimulating eye-full.

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TWYLA ROBINSON, Soprano – with Mariusz Kwiecien (Don Giovanni, 2007.
Photo, Terrence McCarthy)

Soprano Twyla Robinson is a consummate performing artist. Her strong lyrical voice, commanding presence and marvelous acting skills serve her on both the operatic and concert stage. She first attracted my attention at San Francisco Opera’s annual festivity, “Opera In The Park”, where she delivered stunning renditions of Dvořák’s “Song to the Moon” and Magda’s aria from The Consul. In 2007 she appeared as “Donna Elvira” opposite Mariusz Kwiecien in San Francisco Opera’s opening production of DON GIOVANNI. She also shared the stage with him in Atlanta for the 2007 ASO production of Brahms’ Requiem, performing the 5th movement, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit”. The first stanzas are taken from JOHN 16:22 – “So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” Brahms stretches the opening stanza over less than five measures, pitching it from High A to the octave below, and marking the tempo as “Langsam”. Slow. Ms. Robinson sustains the beauty of it all for 21 seconds – a daunting challenge for every soprano. The movement continues with a combination of texts from Ecclesiasticus and Isaiah, “Ye see how for a little while I labor and toil, yet have I found much rest. As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you….” Brahms keeps the soprano working in her upper register, demanding a gentle volume through a series of high (money) notes while the chorus sustains her even more softly. The effect is thrilling, its message of consolation loud and clear. Twyla Robinson’s forthcoming schedule includes appearances as “Donna Anna” in Arizona Opera’s production of DON GIOVANNI and then on to SEATTLE OPERA as “Countess Almaviva” opposite Mariusz Kwiecien in THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO.

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ROBERT SPANO, Conductor.
Photo, Andrew Eccles

The Atlantic Symphony Orchestra and Telarc have produced an amazing collection of Requiems. Click on the titles to purchase these beautiful recordings on-line:
FAURE REQUIEM OP.48 / DURUFLE REQUIEM OP.9. Featuring Judith Blegen, James Morris, Robert Shaw (Conductor).
VERDI REQUIEM and Operatic Choruses. Featuring Paul Plishka, Diane Curry, Susan Dunn, Jerry Hadley. Robert Shaw (Conductor).
MOZART REQUIEM. Featuring Arleen Auger, Delores Ziegler, Jerry Hadley, Tom Krause.
MOZART REQUIEM. Featuring Eric Owens, Ruxandra Donose, Christine Brewer, John Tessier, Donald Runnicles (Conductor).
BERLIOZ REQUIEM. Featuring tenor Frank Lopardo, Conducted by Robert Spano.
BERLIOZ REQUIEM and Boito: Prologue to Mefistofele. Featuring tenor John Aler.
PAUL HINDEMITH: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. (A Requiem for Those We Love). Featuring William Stone, Jan de Gaetani, Robert Shaw (Conductor).

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See Related: FINE ARTS CRITIC SEAN MARTINFIELD

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Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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