The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is no stranger to Madison, but for its gala appearance on Friday evening at Overture Hall it brought along not only two vocal soloists but the entire Chicago Symphony Chorus, over 150 strong.
Their assignment was Johannes Brahms's beloved "A German Requiem," one of the glories of the choral literature. It is, of course, not a "Requiem" in the Roman Catholic Latin tradition, which represents a formal rite for memorial and burial, stressing the fear of death and the desperate hope for redemption. Brahms made his own choice of Scriptural texts, in Luther's German translations, and with them set a tone of consolation and affirmation.
The conductor for this visit, Kent Nagano, elected not to perform this work in isolation, but to put it in a broad context of some 350 years, through music ranging in date from the early seventeenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. A good enough idea, but the test was in the choice of material. A short Psalm setting by Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672) was excellent, but there should have been much more of him.
Brahms, himself a pioneering musicologist, edited Schutz's music for publication, and knew well that composer's settings of some of the texts he himself used in his "German Requiem." A fuller sampling of Schutz would have illuminated nicely the traditions to which Brahms felt connected.
Unfortunately, the other short piece in the brief opening part was a work by Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1870) had little of anything to do with Brahms's purpose or accomplishment: one of those essays in themeless colors and rhythms, interesting at points (especially those using a "musical saw"), but adding up to little.
Then, for the outsized second half, Nagano interpolated into the great Brahms score four short orchestral pieces by Wolfgang Rihm, composed in 2002 explicitly as a "response" to the "German Requiem". With effort, one could catch hints of motivic relationships to the Brahms music, and there were suggestions of almost-lyric lines in the latter two pieces. For the most part, however, they were blobby rambles whose flavor and style were completely incompatible with the "German Requiem." One can make a case for spacers or intermezzos in that massive work, if only to give the chorus a rest. But Rihm's excursions merely showed how much better Brahms's music is, and made us want to get back to it quickly.
As a performance of the Brahms score, however, Nagano delivered the goods. He had, of course, the resource of his chorus, simply magnificent in its sonority -- sufficient to overcome the projection problems of rear-stage location -- and superbly drilled. Size and distance dimmed some of the diction, of course, but Nagano had clearly devoted much attention to the words, shaping the music to their flow, even taking some extra-slow tempos at time to emphasize verbal nuances. It even seemed he could neglect the orchestra to favor the chorus, resulting in a few patches of shaky ensemble. But the total effect of the great choral frescoes was thrilling.
Of the two soloists, baritone Christian Gerhaher seemed more thoughtful that authoritative. The soprano was supposed to be Miah Persson, of most happy memory from the Madison Opera's recent production of Bizet's "Pearl Fishers". But illness forestalled her appearance, and in her place we had the rising Celena Shafer. I have never heard the soprano solo, the song of a mother's consolation to humanity, so movingly sung.
Amid the dubious program decisions, then, Nagano still brought us a wonderful musical experience.