Review - Brahms Requiem - April 21, 2015
Classical music: John W. Barker finds the Wisconsin Chamber Choir moving and overwhelming in its performance of Brahms’ “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms. | April 21, 2015
By Jacob Stockinger
Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also provided the performance photos for this review.
By John W. Barker
Having already established an enviable level of achievement with his Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below), conductor Robert Gehrenbeck led it to new heights with the concert on Saturday night at Luther Memorial Church.
The program opened with two examples of
Gehrenbeck’s interest in promoting new choral
works through commissions.
Entitled “Prairie Spring,” it set a poem
by Willa Cather, celebrating the Nebraska
landscape, scored for choir and string
orchestra. This is a gentle piece, full of lyric
grace, in a neo-Romantic style, and reflecting a
confident command of choral texture. It made me
think a little of the music of British composer
Gerald Finzi. The words were somewhat obscured,
but that may
The second new work was by the older British composer Giles Swayne (right) that sets selected lines from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, under the title of “Our Orphan Souls.” Solo baritone Gregory Berg (below) delivered reflections of Captain Ahab, with chorus, alto saxophone, harp, double bass and percussion.
The solo writing has strength, and might have been built into a more extended soliloquy—and baritone Gregory Berg delivered it with strength. But the choral writing — sung by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir itself — was unsettled and unidiomatic, running from word to word without much continuity of lines.
Ah, but the main event! Nothing less than the “German” Requiem (Ein deutsches Requiem), one of the greatest of choral works, by one of the greatest of choral composers, Johannes Brahms (below). Setting passages from Scripture in the Martin Luther translation, Brahms made this a big work, both in length and in performing demands.
The chancel of Luther Memorial has only so much space, forcing a lot of crowding. The orchestra—37 players, familiar local performers—was arrayed through the center, while the two blended choirs were stationed on risers to either side: sopranos and tenors on the left, altos and basses on the right (below).
Such an arrangement could
have strained ensemble coordination, but in fact
it worked quite well. Indeed, it actually made
it possible to follow the interaction of voice
parts better than when the whole choir is in a
single clump. German diction was a bit blurred,
but, again, acoustics must take some blame. (I
should note that I sat close and up front, so
that what and how I heard may have been somewhat
different from those in seating further back.)
The two soloists were both engaging. A last-minute replacement, soprano Catherine Henry (below right), was deeply expressive, a rich-voiced exemplar of the comforting mother we would all want to have.
The baritone, Brian Leaper, was a deft guide to the mysteries of mortality.
The orchestra took on its large assignment with skill, and the choral singers were simply magnificent. But the highest praise must go to Gehrenbeck himself. His tempos were flexible, his balances neatly coordinated, and his sense of what each of the seven movements had to say was perfect. This is not only a superb choral conductor, but a musician of true artistry.
I write as someone for whom the Brahms Requiem has profound meaning. I have known and loved it since student days. I have sung in it several times, and listened to it in many recordings and performances. It is one of the musical threads of my life.
But I think I can honestly say that this was the most meaningful
performance of the work that I have ever experienced. I often felt moved to tears by the beautiful, truthful messages that Robert Gehrenbeck
(right) — who heads the choral program at UW-Whitewater — brought to realization out of it.
There is a small lifetime list I keep of concerts and performances that I forever cherish, and this one is a rare addition—a presentation I will remember for the rest of my days.
One more reminder, then, of the riches Madison offers in choral music alone.