Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, prefaced with two of the composer’s a capella motets, Ach arme Welt, and O Heiland reiss die Himmel auf, was the program on Nov. 20 by the Newton Choral Society, led by Boston’s David Carrier (a former faculty member of the New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, and Wellesley College). The motets were performed by a select group of twenty singers from within the ensemble; the Requiem was presented by the full ensemble. The full chorus was joined by a 57-piece orchestra, in addition to the soloists, soprano Leah Hungerford and baritone David McFerrin.
Hungerford, a Midwestern native, received her graduate performance certificate from the New England Conservatory, where she participated in numerous opera productions. McFerrin, a rising star in the world of professional opera, will appear in the Boston Lyric Opera’s upcoming production of Handel’s Agrippinia (March 2011). The concert was held at the Holy Name Parish Cathedral in West Roxbury, one of the Boston area’s many beautiful religious edifices.
The use of chorale and counterpoint in the motets testify to Brahms’s admiration of the motets of J.S. Bach. Ach, arme Welt speaks to a sinner’s struggle against earthly temptation; O Heiland reiss calls for heavenly blessing to rain down upon the earth. These two selections were among the most polished of the evening, as the singers navigated the higher tessitura admirably, though an over-zealous tenor did occasionally pop out of the texture. The lack of variation in timbre and articulation was disappointing (particularly in the third and fourth verses of O Heiland reiss), as it obscured Brahms’s emulation of Baroque musical styles and textures.
Brahms’s great Deutsches Requiem is a setting of Biblical texts chosen by the composer himself; unlike earlier “German Requiems” which focus on doctrine-laden texts (such as Schütz’s Musikalisches Exequien), Brahms selected his texts for their universality; in fact, the composer had even considered naming the piece “A Human Requiem.” The composer once declared that the primary aim of this work is to comfort the living rather than to pray for the soul of the dearly departed, again departing from tradition.
The NCS had clearly invested a great deal of time and effort in their presentation of the Requiem, as the chorus showed vocal ability and dexterity beyond their amateur status. Despite this level of musical ability, the group failed to achieve a commensurate level of technical efficiency and artistic expressiveness. In general, the ensemble was unsuccessful creating clear stylistic contrasts, often with little apparent consideration for the disposition of the text. Carrier seemed ill at ease leading the orchestra, which often encountered rough transitions and clumsy landings; poor balance between the orchestra and the chorus was a frequent issue.
The opening movement (“Blessed are they who mourn”) began well, as the chorus seemed focused and unified for their first utterances. This focus broke down quickly, however, as vocal articulations became less unified and even badly out of sync. The second and third movements (“For all flesh is as grass” and “Lord teach me that I must have an end”, respectively) continued in this manner, as the ensemble failed to offer contrasting textures and timbres between contrasting musical sections.
The third movement, however, also featured the highlight of the performance, the first appearance of baritone soloist McFerrin. The first notes of his dark, supple vocal quality actually caused a number of concert-goers to sit up a little straighter in their seats, as he quickly engaged the entire audience. Returning in the sixth movement, he again offered a skillful, expressive contribution in the “set up” of the entire work’s most exciting moment, namely the choral declaration, “O Death, where is your sting?” Soprano soloist Hungerford also sang with power and confidence, executing a number of very expressive moments, though her consideration of the text occasionally seemed to give way to a singular focus on vocal production, a tendency which will surely improve as she continues to gain experience.
Carrier’s tempo for the fourth movement, “How lovely are your dwellings,” seemed a great deal faster than Brahms’s description, “Mäßig bewegt” (with some motion), and so created a pace which I feel was inappropriate for the vision of heavenly repose presented in the text. Ensemble balance was effectively achieved in the fifth movement , “You now have sorrow,” though again the soloist occasionally seemed preoccupied with vocal production at the expense of textual expressiveness. The sixth movement, “We will not all sleep,” opened with the concert’s strongest contrast of choral articulation, creating an effective sense of restrained excitement, related to the text; again, the baritone soloist sang with great dramatic power, though the chorus’s transition into “O Death where is your sting” was tentative and ineffective, followed by a great deal of rushing.
The ensemble seemed to overcome almost all of the above-mentioned issues in the final movement (“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord”), which was the most beautiful and moving portion of the concert. The ensemble executed Brahms’s long, arching lines gracefully and expressively in effective dialogue with the orchestra. This closing musical offering created a proper “benediction” to the NCS’s concert.
As a veteran of volunteer choirs for many years (as both singer and conductor), it gives me no pleasure to write a predominantly negative review for a concert which represents so much effort and time invested by so many volunteers, particularly in view of the fact that this performance was given in memory of a member of the group who recently died. Hopefully the group will find greater success in their future endeavors.