Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem ∙ hr-Sinfonieorchester ∙ MDR-Rundfunkchor ∙ Solisten ∙ Philipp Ahmann, Chorus Director

“Wo ist dein Sieg?”

A perfect performance, and I don’t often say that.  Hola a todos.   Ah yes, the Brahms’s non-Requiem German Requiem.  Or more accurately Ein deutsches Requiem.  It’s one of my most favourite symphonic choral works.  Unlike most Requiems which are musical compositions for the dead, the Brahms is a piece for the living.  That’s why I referred to it earlier as his “non-Requiem German Requiem.”  The piece is intended to comfort the living.  And this performance from Frankfurt certainly comforted me especially with a Chorus and Orchestra of this stellar high-caliber.  The text of the Brahms does not follow the Catholic or Anglican Liturgy Mass for the Dead or Burial Service.

I have watched this performance many times and this Chorus (note the captal C for Chorus) from Leipzig gave an absolutely splendid performance.  It was perfect according to my chorally-trained ears.  Clearly they have an outstanding Chorus Director, although his name is not listed in the credits.  It should be, because the Chorus would not have given this superb performance without him.  Risto Joost may be the current Chorus Director, but I can’t confirm that.  UPDATE:  the name of the new Chorus Director is Philipp Ahmann.  He’s brilliant with a Chorus.  (Related:  Is it Chorus or chorus?  There is a difference although most people don’t seem to know that, even people who should!)

For those who don’t know:  Based on some people’s musically-ignorant U-toob comments, they seem to think that the orchestral conductor for a symphonic choral performance prepares the Chorus.  That is not true.  The orchestral conductor has no contact with the Chorus until the dress rehearsal on stage a day or so before the performance.  On the odd occasion, an orchestral conductor may wish to hear the Chorus before the dress rehearsal and will come to their rehearsal site to hear them and make any minor adjustments from what he or she told the Chorus Director, if the conductor and Chorus Director have previously gone over the score.  But preparing the Chorus is the job of the Chorus Director.

The extremely well-prepared Chorus, the MDR-Rundfunkchor, sang with perfect intonation in all voice parts (SATB) and very clear German diction.  And some of their most beautiful singing was when they were singing very quietly, such as on the text, “Selig sind” which translates as “Blessed are.”  Any Chorus can sing loudly — although not necessarily beautifully — but only the finest Choruses can sing extremely quietly, beautifully and perfectly in tune.  Like this Chorus does.  They are among the finest I’ve heard.  Listen to their gorgeous, perfectly in-tune hushed choral sections (such as after 7.29 and on in the video) throughout the first movement with very clean diction.  And I always listen for the tenor section (beginning at about 8.00 in this performance) to hear their perfectly in-tune tenor line as the Full Chorus sings very quietly.  It was flawless in this performance.  Perfectly in-tune.  Choral excellence at its finest.  That section from 7.00 on (or before) to after 8.00 in the video can bring tears to my eyes it’s so gorgeous.  Can’t get any better than that!  And that tenor section!  Ah!  Those boys are good.  Well they’re all good.  Not to negate anyone.  Beautiful singing.  Again, they sang with perfect intonation (no noticeable vibrato), even the soprano section.  I say that because these days with soprano sections you never know what you’re going to get unfortunately.  I don’t know why that is, but it’s something I’ve increasingly noticed.  The basses, tenors and maybe altos will be singing with perfect intonation.  But the soprano sections in various Choruses sing as if they were trained by a completely different Chorus Director.  Perhaps the Opera Chorus Director as they — these inferior soprano sections that I’m thinking of — sing with wobbling, fluttering and quivering vibrato.   They sound like your average podunk “church choir” sopranos.  But not this Chorus.  They were extremely well-prepared; the perfect blending of voices in all vocal sections.  These choristers are among the finest that one will find in the EU.  So why don’t the Choruses I’ve complained about — New England Conservatory Concert Choir, Boston University Symphony Chorus, the choral ensembles of Shenandoah Conservatory and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus — sound like this?  They all could if they wanted to.  But it has to do with how they’re trained, by some insipid Chorus Director.  Some Chorus Directors simply don’t want to do their job, and they should be replaced with someone who does!  Period.  Since perfect intonation in all voice sections (SATB) is one of the foundations of choral excellence.  To their credit, I think — but am not sure — that the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) under James Burton is now singing with perfect intonation.  That’s one of the reasons he was brought in from the UK after John Oliver’s death.  The TFC had deteriorated considerably under Oliver as I wrote about here.  They were sounding pretty bad, and some people were saying that besides me.

In this Brahms performance from Deutschland/Frankfurt, I also listen and watch for the pedal point in the fugue beginning at 34.03 in this performance. If I had to be critical of production — which I don’t like to do since they do an excellent job — it would be about my personal pet peeve of the cameras not showing the strings who were playing the D pedal point throughout the fugue (the double basses and cellos).  I like watching the string’s random — instead of sychronised — bowing, per their bowing instruments.  The random bowing is to keep the D pedal point note/sound going nonstop without any break in the sound.  Well, the random bowing at that place in the score is per their bowing instructions too, but it’s not sychronised bowing like throughout the rest of the piece.

I realise I’m probably the only person who has an interest in the details of this performance — or any performance for that matter! — that I’m writing about and that’s cool.  Most people are not at all “choral people” or have any interest in it, or the training.  They usually glaze over or begin yawning.  (Sorry to bore you!)  Some people pretend to have an interest in the music I write about, but they’re not fooling me.  I mainly write for myself anyway and what I have an interest in.  But for the one or two people per year who happen to read this article who are symphonic choral people, listen to those sopranos in this performance — there’s no wobbling and fluttering from this soprano section — as well as the tenor section since those sections can be more of a problem than the alto and bass sections with a Chorus.   Yes, in this performance the Chorus was glorious throughout, I can’t say enough about them when you have a Chorus this polished.  Never any pitch problems even in the quietest sections.  They have performed several times before with the hr-Sinfonieorchester.  And again, they sang with extremely clear German diction. One might say, “Well of course their German would be good because that’s where they live.” Not necessarily so. I remember when the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus performed with the Berliner Philharmonica and the reviewer from Berlin said that the ASOC’s German diction was better than that of many/most German Choruses.  And I suspect the German choral ensembles sang with better English than many/most US choral ensembles, excluding Atlanta.  I think the ASOC’s diction is excellent regardless of what they’re singing.

The MDR-Rundfunkchor is the radio choral ensemble of the German broadcaster Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (MDR), based in Leipzig, Saxony.  I consider them to be one of the finest Choruses in the EU.

And of course the hr-Sinfonieorchester was in their usual stellar form.  Florin was Second Concertmaster in this performance, and I must say that the string section really gets a workout in the Brahms, as do the winds.  I don’t think Sebastian, the principal flautist, ever stopped playing did he?  And the same for Nicholas (second chair oboist) sitting next to him.  I bet their embouchure was tired by the end of this piece.   Well I bet they were all tired.  The entire Orchestra and Chorus get quite a workout in the Brahms. 

This performance was conducted by David Zinman, who seemed very pleased with the performance from the Chorus.  How could he not be!

I saw an alto in this Chorus who sings (or did) with Philippe Herreweghe‘s Collegium Vocale Gent and or La Chapelle Royale, so she’s sung in this Concert Hall (well it’s the former Opera House) in Frankfurt before with the hr-Sinfonieorchester.

But do pay special attention to the first movement.  I say that because the ability to sing beautifully quietly in a very hushed manner is one indicator of choral excellence.  This Chorus does so superbly.  No pitch problems at all.  With a poorly trained Chorus, very quiet singing can cause flat singing or singing under the pitch, in part, due to lack of proper breath support and their need for more ear training.

I mentioned them earlier, but the production crew for hr-Sinfonieorchester was superb in this performance.  They were especially good showing the Chorus and focusing on the choristers.  Well, the Chorus was “the star” in this performance along with the Orchestra.  But someone in production knew the score.  Each time a voice section part (SATB) had an entrance in the fugues, the camera showed the section of the Chorus that was singing the subject of the fugue.  I said to mi amigo/my friend while watching this performance — he thoroughly enjoyed it too — these camera people know the score, which I’ve only seen from one other Orchestra Chorus in the EU (the Danish Radio).  They’re showing the choral fugal entrances.  I wonder if anyone else even noticed?  Not something you would see from some other production crews.  The hr-Sinfonieorchester is certainly a high-quality ensemble in all that they do, including their production crew.

With this piece, I agree with one of the teachers in my high school. I remember what she said about the Brahms. She loved the Brahms. She was in a local choral society that usually performed with an orchestra and they were doing the Brahms. She said, “You get to the end and want to start it all over again.” Yes, that’s how I feel about it. Well, the last movement of the piece is very similar to the first movement.

Mi amigo/My friend said to me:  “You performed this didn’t you?  I bet it was an enjoyable piece to perform.” Yes, it was.  I performed it twice during my years with Orchestra Choruses. The first with Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington.  That was with The Cleveland Orchestra with Lorin Maazel conducting in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.  Maazel was difficult to work with. That’s all I remember about him even though we were superbly prepared by Norman Scribner. The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus did not tour with their Orchestra so the Choral Arts Society of Washington was invited to perform with The Cleveland Orchestra for those performances.  I also performed the Brahms with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and Vance George prepared the Chorus.

It looks like this Chorus from Leipzig is getting a new Chorus Director.  I’ll assume he’s just as good as the Chorus Director who prepared the Chorus for this performance.  They should be delighted with their performance in Frankfurt.   And to all of the musicians — both Orchestra and Chorus — I would like to say a very sincere muchas, muchas gracias for all of your hard work in producing such a stellar performance.  Chau.—el barrio rosa