Martin Luther's translation of the Bible was as close to the heart of Brahms' humanity as Shakespeare's plays were to Verdi's. Thus it was precisely right for the Choral Arts Society and its director, Norman Scribner, to honor the Brahms sesquicentennial yesterday at the Kennedy Center with "A German Requiem," that transcendent expression of mortal hope based on seven extracts from Luther's Bible.
The honor, though, was not just to Brahms. For the chorus, which is one of the finest in the country, the excellent Scribner and the two soloists honored themselves as well. Broad and massive, the performance was quite grand.
Brahms' Requiem, which of course has nothing to do with the Christian mass, is Brahms at his most eloquent, with its rich textures, its massive counterpoint and its overwhelming sense of emotional commitment. Every performer yesterday seemed to sense the specialness of the occasion, none more than the orchestra. When the National Symphony works on a free-lance basis, the first chair players usually drop out, but yesterday every one of them seemed to be there for the Requiem--and concertmaster William Steck led the applause for Scribner at the end.
The large choir was superbly drilled, with precise ensemble on hard attacks and releases, as in the second repeat of "Denn alles Fleisch" in Part 2 and in the word "Tod" in Part 6.
Soprano Marvis Martin was practically perfect in Part 5; her high notes were glorious. Baritone Bruce Abel was splendid. He does not have a big voice, but he uses it with true art.
Before the Brahms, Abel sang Mahler's "Kindertotenleider" with Scribner and the orchestra. The performance was quite moving. But one questions the wisdom of playing two such wrenching works at the same concert. The Brahms was so overwhelming that the Mahler was almost forgotten, and because both were played, the concert was also a bit too long.