At first blush, the connection between Schütz and Brahms might not be apparent. In a thoughtful and thought-provoking move, this performance of Brahms’ Requiem was preceded by two motets written by the late Renaissance master. Sung at the funeral of Schütz’s employer, the Elector of Saxony, both works are richly effective settings of scriptural texts. The second, Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener is a setting of the Song of Simeon, while the first, Selig sind die Toten sets the same passage from the book of Revelation that closes the Brahms: “Blessed are the dead…”.
Warren Trevelyan-Jones and the MSO Chorus. Photo © Laura Manariti
Both composers mine a rich emotional vein in their chosen texts, and both aim for clarity of musical declamation in their differing styles. Apart from the pure musical richness of the chosen repertory for this concert, much food for thought was also afforded by decisions about performance styles and forces.
This current iteration of the MSO Chorus numbers just over 100 singers. Choosing to perform two a cappella motets followed by Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) in its so-called “London” version (i.e. accompanied by piano four-hands) in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall seems like a good choice, but it was not without its challenges.
Conducted by its regular chorus master, Warren Trevelyan-Jones, the Chorus delivered a sonorous account of the two Schütz pieces, investing Selig sind with carefully modulated dynamics while enjoying the Venetian-style contrasts between upper and lower registers in Herr, nun lässest. Bringing a great deal of energy to proceedings, the Chorus responded eagerly to its director, delivering a decidedly Brahmsian take on Schütz which was understandable in the circumstances.
Lee Abrahmsen. Photo © Laura Manariti
Pianists Tom Griffiths and Donald Nicolson joined soloists Lee Abrahmsen and Simon Meadows for the Brahms. Griffiths and Nicolson have long been associated with the MSO in various capacities and provided constructive yet nuanced support for the singers, using the four-hand version of the accompaniment created by Brahms himself.
Trevelyan-Jones kept the work moving, allowing it to unfold in long, flowing musical paragraphs. This flowing approach also allowed dramatic contrasts between paragraphs to register their full impact.
By any measure, Ein Deutsches Requiem is a big sing. Lasting some 80 minutes, the chorus has a major role to play in each of its seven movements, and some of its greatest vocal demands come towards the end, with vigorous contrapuntal writing followed by a lyrical finale with long, sustained lines that demand a vocal freshness not easily achieved after so much singing. It is to the MSO Chorus’s credit that it maintained such a high degree of energy and commitment throughout.
The MSO Chorus. Photo © Laura Manariti
Such energy amongst so many singers did, however, have some implications. Most noticeably, the large vocal sound tended to dwarf the accompaniment, at times making it barely audible. While it was clear that Griffiths and Nicolson paid much attention to detail, plenty of that was lost simply due to the unbalanced acoustical equation. On the one hand, the vocal exuberance of the chorus in forte passages was impressive, but at times the sound was so full (particularly when the sopranos were above the stave) that it was too much for the room, and threatened distortion.
Despite these caveats, there was still much to enjoy. The ever-popular Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely are your dwellings) was sung with unaffected charm. Baritone Simon Meadows was strikingly effective in the sixth movement, Denn wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt (For here we have no abiding city) evoking the last trumpet (or as it is in the German, the last trombone). The ensuing choral outburst proclaiming victory over death was ecstatic. Soprano Lee Abrahmsen brought an appropriately maternal feel to Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (You are sorrowful now). While the Chorus sang very sweetly here, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall would have projected an even softer sound to telling effect.
Although this concert offered some interesting historical perspectives, it will be rewarding to see the MSO Chorus bring this energy and zeal to their performance of Ein Deutsches Requiem in its full orchestral dress in the 2020 season.