Something extraordinary is taking place in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, and readers are strongly encouraged to immediately snap up any tickets remaining for Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s performances of Brahms’ German Requiem today and tomorrow.

Simone Young conducts A German Requiem. Photo © Jansson J. Antmann

Conducted by Simone Young and featuring soprano Emma Matthews, baritone Bo Skovhus and the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, last night’s concert delivered music so glorious that it was difficult to imagine anything as fine being played anywhere else in the world.

Ordinarily a Catholic Mass for the dead, Brahms’ Lutheran take on the Requiem is intended to offer comfort to the living. It is therefore a much more uplifting experience than, for example, the versions of Mozart or Verdi with their fire and brimstone. In fact, there were moments in last night’s performance that recalled the contemporary Requiem by Holcombe Waller, which received its Australian premiere with the Sydney Chamber Choir under Sam Allchurch during the 2019 Sydney Mardi Gras. Waller’s also kept in mind the loved ones who remain, especially those denied the right to grieve as a result of prejudice and exclusion.

Simone Young’s reading of Brahms’ German Requiem is one in which life and death co-exist. Brahms was a lover of folk music – one need only think of his settings for German folk songs and his Hungarian Dances – and this influence also shines through the melodies in his Requiem. However, Young ensures that they joyously hover above an ominous undertone that throbs incessantly. The organ and double basses reverberate around the hall and deep into our souls, delivering a literally gut-wrenching memento mori.

Bo Skovhus and the SSO perform A German Requiem. Photo © Jansson J. Antmann

Young also maintains fitting tempi somewhere between celebration and funerary march. We feel the push and pull of her direction, and it is a visceral experience, as if we too are held by the reins she firmly holds. Young steers us on an emotional journey and the effect is thrilling. When she picks up momentum, it feels like the jet force of a plane taking off. Then, just when it seems we are going to be propelled from our seats, she pulls us back. It is impossible not to be swallowed up by these undulating waves of music.

Some conductors have rendered the piece an almost monodic blancmange. Not Young. She allows the orchestra and choir to sparkle, releasing the full contrapuntal beauty of Brahms’ music. Beneath glorious sustained vocal notes, the orchestra modulates, and dissonance is swiftly and beautifully resolved. In this way, Brahms rewards the listener with repeated bouts of closure, unlike his rival Wagner, who drew the resolution of the famed ‘Tristan chord’ out over nearly four hours. Curiously, Brahms – the self-professed greatest of all Wagnerians – took it upon himself to also resolve the ‘Tristan chord’ in his own Intermezzo Op. 76 No 4 in B Flat Major.

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde premiered two years before Brahms’ German Requiem. Although the two composers were on opposite sides of the so-called ‘War of the Romantics’, Brahms’ admiration for Wagner is well documented and Young’s mastery of the German repertoire draws this out magnificently. It was perhaps most notable during the sixth movement, Denn wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt (For we have no permanent home here) featuring Skovhus. Young’s reading resembled the Dutchman’s epic monologue Die Frist ist um from Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer from 1843. Accompanying Skovhus, the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs under Brett Weymark also evoked the storm scene from later in the same opera.

Emma Matthews and the SSO perform A German Requiem. Photo © Jansson J. Antmann

Skovhus brings incredible power and phrasing to his two solo movements and Sydney audiences are privileged to have this rare opportunity to witness his artistry live on stage. Like Young, he enjoys an innate connection to German music and language. He has exquisite portamento matched by the ability to deconstruct a diphthong, so that subtle modulations are brought to the fore. In fact, vowels seem to take on a life of their own when formed by Skovhus, much like the great bass-baritone Alfred Muff, and any dissenters to the beauty of sung German would surely reconsider their position in the presence of such vocal dexterity.

Likewise, Matthews perfectly delivers her solo, which can be considered the heart and soul of this Requiem. This is the moment in which Brahms overtly mourns the death of his mother, who passed away in 1865. However, even here there is a lightness of touch, enhanced by Matthews’ warm and crystal-clear soprano. It seems to celebrate everything that was good about Brahms’ mother and results in a truly radiant moment, in which her spirit sings to us. Matthews ensures every note resonates in our hearts; her diction perfect like that of Skovhus and the choir, with each word indelibly imprinted on our consciousness.

Brahms’ German Requiem is a popular piece, however no matter how many times one has heard it before, this interpretation by Young has to be seen to be believed. Much has been written about the refined acoustics of the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House, since its reopening last month. While Simone Young’s conducting of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony was suitably triumphant on that occasion, last night she exceeded herself. Neither the SSO, nor Brahms’ German Requiem have ever sounded so good.

Simone Young conducts A German Requiem at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House until 7 August.

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