Guest conductor Helmuth Rilling finds beauty in lament

Helmuth Rilling
Minnesota Star Tribune

Minnesota Chorale takes center stage at this week's Minnesota Orchestra concerts, singing three rarely heard choral works by Johannes Brahms. Under legendary guest conductor Helmuth Rilling, it is doubtful that these works could be heard better performed anywhere in the world.

Most unique was "Four Songs for Women's Voices, Two Horns and Harp," Op. 17, short lyrics set evocatively, contrasting the haunting sonorities of the three instruments with the ethereal high voices. Most effective were a delicate setting of a song from Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" and a lament that conveyed the relentlessness of grief. The women of the Chorale sang with a crystalline beauty and a clear diction that occasionally was lacking in the other selections.

Another lament, "Nänie," Op. 82 (Latin for a song by parents who've lost a child), was a setting of a poem by Friederich Schiller. Brahms wrote it in response to the death of his close friend, the artist Anselm Feuerbach. As with the "German Requiem," Brahms created the ultimate impression of gentle consolation.

Minnesota Chorale conveyed grief with full-throated passion. They were capable of creating a resplendent large sound, but it was in the quiet, elegiac moments that the performance was at its most moving and effective.

The Brahms who wrote "Schicksalslied" (Song of Destiny), Op. 54 had an incredibly pessimistic view of human existence. He reserved any tender music for the description of the gods. For this, Minnesota Chorale produced an ideally transparent sound, while being equally successful in the tumultuous depiction of human desolation. But in Rilling's handling of the orchestral postlude, he brought the work to a most satisfyingly serene conclusion.

In the concert's first half, Rilling led a deeply idiomatic performance of Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 4 in C minor ("Tragic"), demonstrating again his affinity and experience with German Romanticism.

From its portentous opening, this symphony hearkens back to the music of Beethoven, while in the Allegro, there are echoes of the classicism of Gluck. Rilling balanced these elements deftly, creating something uniquely Schubertian.

As the strings sang in the opening of the slow movement, Rilling had a clear handle on its sprawling shape, maintaining both its drama and its delicacy. If the Allegro vivace Minuet was not as vivacious as might have been hoped for, the finale built to a stirring climax, dispelling all that was "tragic" in the symphony.