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Philharmonic, vocalists glisten in Brahms

By on Fri, Nov 16, 2012

Long considered one of the jewels of the choral-orchestral repertoire, the Brahms “German” Requiem was given a glowing performance Saturday night in Popejoy Hall by the New Mexico Philharmonic.

Returning guest conductor Dante Anzolini led the orchestra in a concert of music by Verdi, Elgar and Brahms, joined by singers Sharla Nafziger, Edmund Connolly and the Choir of the Cathedral of St. John, directed by Maxine Thévenot.

I can never help but think that “La forza del destino” (The Forces of Destiny), an opera by Verdi, would also make an excellent name for a TV soap opera. It just has that ring. The overture to the work, so unmistakably Italian in character and in interpretation here, served as antipasta for the program.

The Italianate character continued into the “Enigma” Variations by Edward Elgar, an Victorian piece of music to be sure, but there was nothing restrained in Anzolini’s reading, impassioned, even sensual throughout. The work was said to be inspired by an undisclosed theme which for more than 100 years has baffled those trying to discover it. I tend to think Elgar was simply being mischievous, but if so, it was a prank he ultimately came to regret being forever pestered about.

The work is in fact a series of variations, each of which portrays an individual, Elgar’s friends and family, indicated by initials or nicknames. Ranging from the scampering Allegretto “RBT” and fairy-light “Dorabella,” to the sensuous sweep of “WN,” the performance exploited all the colors of the orchestra, masterfully executed by players of the philharmonic.

The most famous section of the work, the “Nimrod” variation, a virtual national anthem in Britain, began very quietly, with Anzolini eliciting the widest possible crescendo and a highly moving interpretation of a work often grossly overplayed. During the boisterous applause which followed, the maestro generously took time to acknowledge the many contributions of the individual players.

Brahms was particular to title his work A “German” Requiem. Though his religious sentiments may have been thin, they were clearly directed toward the Lutheran, not the Catholic church. In contrast from the many settings of the Catholic liturgy, this work was never intended for liturgical use, Brahms employing texts of his own choosing from the Lutheran Bible.

From the very opening moments Anzolini gave the work a sumptuous glow, which seemed to revel in Brahms’ gorgeous harmony. The choir, meticulously prepared by Maxine Thévenot, sang this sublime but highly difficult work with an opulent sonority and top-to-bottom balance — clearly a labor of love.

Edmund Connolly’s rich and high-timbred baritone gave beautifully sculpted lines to the third movement and a ringing drama to set the powerful entrance of the chorus at “the trumpet shall sound.” Sharla Nafziger sang the fifth movement, a standard of the nonoperatic soprano literature, with a clear and bright voice.

The sixth movement, “For here we have no continuing city,” could have easily provided an effective ending with its radiant grandeur, but there was more to come. The seventh and final section, a gentle and soothing demeanor, seemed to assure us that life is always in some sense eternal.

A decided triumph here for orchestra, chorus, soloists and conductor alike.

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