by HOWARD SMITH
Wellington's concert of remembrance to mark the 70th Anniversary of Kristallnacht (9 November 1938), precursor of 'The Holocaust', proved a momentous occasion of rare provenance.
The State of Israel and Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany supported it, and in attendance at The Michael Fowler Centre [Wellington, New Zealand, 9 November 2008] were a senior diplomat from Israel, the German Ambassador, representatives of NZ embassies (Polish, German, Netherlands, Russian, Italian ), NZ Jewish dignitaries, the chairperson of the Wellington Holocaust Research and Education Centre, Kerry Prendergast (Mayor of Wellington) and major sponsors.
The augmented Wellington Vector Orchestra and Orpheus Choir presented two works; from Germany -- 'Ein deutsches Requiem' Op 45 by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and from Israel -- Requiem 'The Holocaust' (1994-1995) by Boris Pigovat, present for the southern hemisphere première.
In the case of the Israeli work it seems scarcely credible that an audience assembled to recall one the 20th century's worst affronts on humanity were hearing the 2nd ever public performance of Pigovat's Requiem; music conveying colossal power, numbing sorrow, and an aura of reconciliation.
However the 19th century work came first -- American composer and Brahms biographer Jan Swafford (born 1946) relates how Brahms himself saw his Opus 45 as a 'human' rather than merely a German requiem.
Drawing on Luther's German Bible (1534), he emphasized a sense of the mystery of life, its fragility, and the inevitability of death, the hope for the future, and the value of patience and endurance. The German Requiem gives a sense of spirituality in a secular age.
Detractors have fussed over its avoidance of outright Christian content. The fact is Brahms steered clear of Biblical dogma; opting instead for passages of peace, hope and comfort.
In her programme note Wellington musicologist Inge van Rij (author -- Brahms's Song Collections, Cambridge University Press) writes 'The opening choral entry (Selig sind, die da Leid tragen) sounds like it is coming to us from across the centuries, the opening of the second movement is sometimes thought to evoke a chorale (a traditional Lutheran hymn), while the third and sixth movements close with massive Handelian-style fugues, demonstrating Brahms' passionate engagement with the copious volumes of 'early music' in his library.'
Brahms completed all but what is now the 5th movement in August 1866. He added the 5th movement (Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit) for soprano solo in May 1868. The first complete seven-movement performance was in Leipzig, February 1869. Carl Reinecke conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra and Chorus with soloists Franz Krückl (baritone) and Emilie Bellingrath-Wagner (soprano).
The first complete American performance (sung in English) by the Oratorio Society (March 1877) was under the baton of Walter Damrosch at New York's Steinway Hall.
Last May (2008) in Carnegie Hall, the Oratorio Society of New York presented Ein deutsches Requiem (in German) preceded by Brahms' Tragic Overture, marking the 131st anniversary of its American première.
Wellingtonians heard a firmly moulded performance with broad tempos -- under Mark Taddei's unwavering direction the Vector players never lost sight of Brahms' inner architecture while the Orpheus Choir lines -- words of comfort and humanity -- remained clearly differentiated by the choristers, positioned behind and above the orchestra.
'The German Requiem' is not just notable for its non-liturgical text but equally for the consummate mastery of form; viz Brahms' prevailing counterpoint and resounding fugal sections at the conclusion of both 3rd and 6th movements. These were consistently imposing as the Vector Wellington Orchestra and Orpheus Choir rose unfailingly to the score's considerable thematic demands.
Soprano Jenny Wollerman spent four years at the Curtis Institute of Music (Philadelphia), continuing to further studies at the Banff Centre (Canada) and the Britten-Pears School in Aldeburgh. Baritone Jared Holt's engagements have included roles at the Royal Opera House and Glyndebourne Festival in England.
However Wollerman fell a little short in sustaining sufficient tonal consistency throughout 'Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit'; and in his few lower register moments, baritone Jared Holt wavered somewhat.
Nonetheless (on balance), this performance resonated with a full measure of beauty and solace. I didn't time Taddei -- my guess is the performance occupied somewhere around seventy minutes. Interestingly the tempos of rival recorded versions vary markedly.
In 1954 Bruno Walter with the New York Phil went for drama rather than contemplation -- his run time (62 minutes) looks athletic beside 69 minutes for Klemperer, 75 for Robert Shaw, while Rudolf Kempe in an acclaimed 1950s account with the Berlin Philharmonic takes 76 minutes.
Following intermission Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre reverberated to the 2nd performance of Pigovat's haunting Requiem -- The Holocaust -- a work of shattering power and indelible sorrow. Its four movements conform, in part, to elements from the Latin requiem mass. They are (i) Requiem Aeternam, (ii) Dies Irae, (iii) Lacrimosa and (iv) Lux Eterna.
Boris Pigovat (born 1953, Odessa, USSR) studied at the Gnessin Music Institute, Moscow. He lived in Tadjikistan (1978-1990), then immigrated to Israel in 1990. In 1995 he was awarded the Prize of ACUM (the Israeli ASCAP) for his Requiem 'The Holocaust'. In 2000 he received the prize of the Prime Minister of State of Israel and in 2002 he gained his PhD at Bar-Ilan University (Israel).
The Holocaust's 2001 world première was recorded at a Memorial evening to the Nazis' 'Babi Yar' genocide (September 1941) where Pigovat's grandparents and aunt were killed. It featured the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine with Cologne-born Rainer Moog (viola), directed by Roman Kofman (Professor of Conducting at the Tchaikovsky National Academy of Music, Kiev).
Using purely orchestral forces this 46-minute symphonic-concerto encompasses ear-splitting anguish, horror and confusion -- tolling tintinnabulations mark the outset of unspeakable atrocities while abject grief is heightened by sonorous lamentations of the solo viola; a role of unusually formidable demands.
The Vector Wellington Orchestra clearly found this taxing work well within its métier, and viola soloist Donald Maurice negotiated the unrelenting technical minefield with a performance of both furious bravura and unassailable beauty.
Wellington's concert of remembrance was a time for ennobling of the fallen and chastening of a surviving generation. Few of those in attendance are likely to forget.
Copyright © 13 November 2008
Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand