For his final week with the National Symphony this season, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos is conducting the Brahms Requiem.
And last night in the Kennedy Center, much of the performance was ideal. The dominant mood of serene consolation was always present. It would be hard to imagine tempos more ideally suited to every part of the radiant music or finer balances between instruments and chorus. The orchestra offered playing of singular beauty and the University of Maryland Chorus, impeccably trained by Paul Traver, provided every nuance that Fruhbeck asked.
It was precisely in some of the things the conductor did not ask that the work failed to reach the heights that are so easily within his reach. Traver's singers sand beautiful, clear German in every full-voiced passage. But every time the music sank to a pianissimo -- and it opens and closes that way -- Fruhbeck called for, and was given, a kind of luminous cloud of sound in which no words could be described. Thus the opening phrase, that blessed assurance: "Selig sind, die da Leid tragen" -- Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall have comfort -- came out "e-i-ee-ah-ei-ah" etc. There was no suggestion of beginnings and endings of words which were for Brahms the whole purpose of writing one of his most moving compositions. This is something Fruhbeck can adjust with a flick of his wrist if he cares to.
There are other moments that fall just short of perfection. The first great fugue should be one continual crescendo without shifts to piano that are contraindicated in the score. And the specific marking "crescendo molto" just before the beginning of that fugue was missed entirely.Another perplexing matter arose out of the conductor's inconsistent observance of the many signs with which Brahms enhances the score. Some crescendos and decrescendos were impeccably fashioned; others went totally unattended. Would it be better in so minutely marked a work for the conductor to use a score?
Richard Stilwell was ideal in the brooding, dramatic baritone solos. With his beautifully controlled voice, he gave long phrases a nobility made possible by superb breath control. In contrast, Gwendolyn Bradley sang prettily in the ineffable soprano solo but without probing beneath its surface; and in breathing too often, lost much of the effect possible.
The vital organ part was faultlessly played but a bit too restricted for its best effect -- again the wish of the conductor?
The Requiem will be repeated tonight, Thursday and Friday.