Indicative of the universal spirituality that infuses Brahms' "German Requiem" is the fact that the composer once said: "As regards the title, I confess I should gladly have left out 'German' and substituted 'Human.' "
And it was just this quality of human spirituality that Uriel Segal repeatedly brought out in his shaping of Saturday evening's Chautauqua performance of this great work, the first requiem setting whose message is concerned more with consoling the bereaved than with salvation of the soul of the deceased.
From the opening in reverential pianissimo strings, followed by the hushed but tinglingly vibrant choral entrance on "Selig sind," the music's long lyrical lines were grandly expansive and always superbly lofted, supported and projected outward.
Segal's way with this music was very respectful of Brahms' score markings, but he was not afraid to add some individual touches, such as the slight extra emphasis he gave to certain syllables in the second movement's "Denn alles Fleisch ist wie Gras," which had the effect of firmly defining and boldly outlining the pulsing theme on which those words ride. And later, as the movement's climaxes were approached, he let timpanist Stuart Chafetz lead the charge with deep-ringing, steadily intensifying beats as the crescendo's intensity mounted, creating an edge-of-seat excitement and anticipation I don't recall experiencing before.
Solo work was excellent, with Grant Youngblood's well-focused but throaty baritone coming through with an earnest quality in the third and sixth movements. And the warmth, purity and fine support of Benita Valente's soprano, with little flecks of mezzo timbre and coloration adding a fuller texture, made a beautiful effect in "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit." Segal's control of the balances and dynamics was excellent, as the choral/orchestral entrances dovetailed perfectly with Valente's attacks.
In the choral keystone of the work, known in English as "How lovely is Thy dwelling place," Segal again enhanced the shape of phrases with small pulses and sforzandi, while the three combined choirs had a grand, expansive sound, and the steadiness of Segal's pulse gave life to the music. He neither loafed nor rushed but played it "con moto e energico."
In the final "Selig sind die Toten," the women's voices were ethereal in the opening, and Segal managed a marvelous sustained quality of lofted, aerial lightness, even in the quietest moments.
One might quibble that the choral fugue in the third movement was a bit understated, causing the men's first entrance to be covered by the orchestra, or that there was a bit of a horn crack in the final movement, but the general level of the performance was extremely high and gave an outstanding, individual account of this serenely beautiful work.