By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Pasadena Master Chorale; Jeffrey Bernstein, conductor
Brahms: Ein Deutsche Requiem
Saturday, April 9, 2011 • La Crescenta Presbyterian Church
Through the centuries, hundreds of composers have set the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass (aka Mass for the Dead or Funeral Mass) to music and some of those pieces show up annually on classical music schedules as the Christian Holy Week approaches (this year it runs from April 17-24). This year, for example, Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem will be performed Sunday in Costa Mesa and on April 22 at a Good Friday Devotional Concert at Pasadena Presbyterian Church.
Perhaps the most unique Requiem ever composed was Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), which was written between 1865 and 1868 (the first complete performance was Feb. 28, 1869 in Leipzig). Unlike many settings of the ancient Requiem liturgy, which emphasize the terror of death, Brahms — who wrote this piece shortly after his mother died — used scriptures from the Old and New Testaments that focused on comfort and consolation.
Brahms wasn’t content with a version for choir, soloists and orchestra; he also arranged A German Requiem to be accompanied by two pianists playing a single instrument. That was a common practice in the 19th century when having a full orchestra was a luxury and recordings were not yet invented. Hard as it is to believe now, Brahms was concerned that the work would not be popular. “Now it cannot perish,” he wrote. “What is more, it has become altogether splendid.”
The wisdom of that last phrase is certainly open to question (the orchestral accompaniment for this work is highly expressive and there’s no way two pianos can approximate it) but Artistic Director Jeffrey Bernstein and his Pasadena Master Chorale gave a sensitive performance of this rarely heard edition last night at La Crescenta Presbyterian Church. It was a reprise of sorts; the same forces had performed the work last year.
In brief preconcert remarks, Bernstein noted that using just four-hand piano for the accompaniment means the choir doesn’t have to strain to be heard above a full orchestra and, although pianists Shawn Kirchner and Alan Steinberger accompanied with panache, the focus was, indeed, on the Chorale.
That turned out to be just fine because the 55-voice ensemble sang with clear German diction and rhythmic precision and in the softer moments it achieved a notable blend. Only at the outer extremes of their voices in the loudest sections did some occasional rawness slip in, but for the most part this was both an impressive and expressive performance.
Brahms’ Requiem has a symmetrical structure. The first and seventh (last) movements use similar themes, the second and sixth movements end with glorious double fugues, the third and fifth movements feature soloists, and the apex of the piece is Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How Lovely Are Your Dwelling Places), which the choir sang with elegant, simple beauty; it was, indeed, the evening’s pinnacle.
Soprano Krystle Casey’s radiant operatic voice was almost too powerful in her fifth movement solo, while baritone Scott Graff seemed curiously understated throughout much of his solo work; I wished Casey could have poured a little of her power into Graff — the combination of her power and Graff’s clean high baritone voice would have been potent.
Throughout the night, Bernstein — who conducted the two pianists with the same exuberance as if he was presiding over a full orchestra — led a performance that appropriately emphasized Brahms’ great musical arcs. He also took the three double-fugue sections at brisk clips, to which the Chorale responded with clarity and power, particularly in the sixth movement, with its resurrection text from Hebrews, I Corinthians and Revelation. It was both chilling and consoling — Brahms surely would have approved.
• The Chorale provided English translations in the printed program and was smart enough to leave the lights up so people could follow along if needed.
• Appropriately there was no intermission, but Bernstein did pause after the third movement to allow the Chorale to take a water break (they all brought water bottles); he invited those in the audience so equipped to join in. From a musical point of view, I might have opted for after the fourth movement but the second and third movements are killers for choral singers, so from a practical point of view, Bernstein’s choice made eminent sense.
• If you want to compare versions, Gustavo Dudamel will conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale and soloists in a performance of Brahms’ Requiem May 12-15 at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The concert, part of the Phil’s “Brahms Unbound” series, will also include the West Coast premiere of Steven Mackey’s Beautiful Passing. Info: www.laphil.com
• Brahms wasn’t alone in providing multiple accompaniments for his Requiem. Fauré wrote a chamber-orchestra version for his Requiem and either wrote or sanctioned a full-orchestra setting. Half a century later, Maurice Duruflé set his Requiem for full orchestra, organ alone — no surprise, since he was a great organist — and for organ with string orchestra and optional harp and timpani.
• The PMC’s final concert of the season is “The Green Concert” (celebrating the Earth, with music by Aaron Copland, Randall Thompson and Bernstein) will be June 4 at La Crescenta Presbyterian Church and June 5 at Altadena Community Church. Info: www.pasadenamasterchorale.org
(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.