If you love the vocal and choral music of Brahms — and who doesn’t? — Spectrum Singers’ concert on Saturday night was the place to be. A chorus is only as good as its conductor, and Spectrum’s John Ehrlich (also a contributor to BMInt) is a terrific choral conductor. The chorus sings with impeccable intonation and impressively controlled dynamics. It is a group well worth hearing, and this program showed the singers off to excellent effect.
The program opened with two songs, Waldesnacht op. 62, no. 3 (1874) and Der Abend, op. 64, no. 2, written the same year. Both were intended as chamber works most likely for home performance, either a cappella or with piano, as was the case here. Ehrlich in his excellent program notes explained that precedent exists for the concept of choral Lieder, and that, most importantly, these works deserve a large audience. Both works are nature-based, the first peaceful and calming in a cool forest night, “free from distracting torments.” Based on a poem by Friedrich Schiller, Der Abend features a moonstruck lad on the way to his beloved. There are people who find the world of instrumental Brahms so fulfilling, that they forget to listen to any vocal music besides his lieder. Violists love to play Brahms’s “viola songs” — the Two Songs for Alto, Viola, and Piano, op. 91. Brahms wrote extremely well for viola, his favorite string instrument, and altos and mezzo-sopranos love to sing it.
Kendra Colton sang the two songs with in a composed, elegant manner, with great emotional power. She was well-matched by violist Mary Ruth Ray who played the second song especially beautifully. The viola begins both of the songs, the first of which, “Gestillte Sehnsucht,” (Appeased Longing) has many of Brahms’ nature tropes — forest, birds, evening wind, longing gazes, just plain longing. The second is a lilting cradle song, “Geistliches Wiegenlied” (Sacred Lullaby) in which the viola is told no less than 10 times to play dolce espressivo. The four stanzas all end, “Silence the treetops! My child is asleep,” each time with different emotions — suffering, pain, resignation, peace.
There is nothing else in the choral or chamber music repertoire with the imaginatively colorful scoring of Brahms’s Four Songs for Voice, Two Horns, and Harp, op. 17, in which Spectrum’s women got to show off their impressive stuff. It received a beautiful performance, abetted by the two hornists, John Aubrey and Kimberly Harriman, and harpist Judy Saiki Couture. It is also a piece harpists love to play. Clara Schumann teased Brahms, “There must have been a very pretty girl in your choir who happened to play the harp and for whom you composed the piece.” In her journal she wrote, “They are pearls…. How can one help loving such a man!” Brahms, of course, wrote masterfully for horn throughout his symphonies and in his Horn Trio, op. 40, but totally neglected the harp except in his choral work Nänie and in a few measures of his German Requiem. So it comes as a shock to a first-time listener to hear how very well he wrote for this instrument.
The other oddities on the program were two piano, four-hand arrangements, WoO 1 (1869) of Hungarian Dances No. 2 in D minor and No.16 in F minor, played with panache by the evening’s pianists James Barkovic and Terry Halco. Like almost all of the Hungarian dances that Brahms arranged, these were a lot of fun.
The rest of the generous choral program included Five Songs, op. 104 (1889), “Sehnsucht, op. 112 (Longing)” and “Zum Schluss” from the Neue Liebeslieder op. 65, #15 Each was stunning, rife with emotions, and sung very well. Despite having listened to Brahms my entire life, I now have a fuller and deeper picture of his music, thanks to John Ehrlich and his Spectrum Singers.