From Copenhagen: Brahms – Ein Deutches Requiem – DRSO & KoncertKoret

Hola a todos. The Chorus (KoncertKoret) in this performance below from Copenhagen is perfect. They should have been very pleased with their performance. They gave a superb performance, as did the DRSO (Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra). I was also glad to see that the Chorus didn’t use black folders because it allowed me to see that they were using the Editions Peters score.

For Ein Deutches Requiem, to determine the quality level of a Chorus — without listening to the whole thing — I listen to the beginning of the last movement of the Brahms. That will, in part, tell me how good the Chorus is. Because frankly I don’t feel like wasting my time listening to a performance with a Chorus that is, well, “under-powered” or is not up to the superb skill level required for this work. Any Chorus can attempt this piece, but only the best can produce stellar results. This Chorus from Copenhagen produces stellar results. Love them! Lovely singing from the Chorus. So in the last movement, I listen for any decay/wilting, losing steam from the soprano section when they sing their long soaring line that begins the movement. Some soprano sections sort of lose steam and peter-out on that part. It takes lots of staggered breathing. (Am I getting too technical for the average person?) With this Chorus, their soprano section sang it perfectly. Then their strong bass section entered with the same subject/theme and sang their line perfectly.

For symphonic choral works — which Brahms’s Ein Deutches Requiem is — I base the quality of the performance on how well the Chorus is prepared by the Chorus Director and how beautifully they sing, especially quietly. One might be thinking: What else would you base it on…doh? Well, you might be surprised to know that there’s a group of know-it-all people (wannabe-musicians?) whom I refer to as the Classical Music Snots who always base the quality of a performance — choral or otherwise — on the celebrity conductor who didn’t play or sing a note, or on the screaming operatic soloists.1 Rarely do they even mention the Chorus and or the Orchestra who really performed the majority of the work. No, they’re all about worshiping the celebrity soloists and conductors. I’m not into conductor worshiping and in this performance Herbert Blomstedt was the conductor. I do remember singing under him when I was in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus when Vance George was SFS Chorus Director. Conductor Herbert Blomstedt pretty much conducted this piece the way everybody else does, if not exactly as they do. There was nothing unique about the way he conducted this per the score. It’s pretty straight forward so there’s no need for the Classical Music Snots to go on about how they love the Blomstedt performance when they really mean they loved the Chorus and Orchestra. Because Blomstedt may have other recorded performances of this piece with another choral ensemble (as well as Orchestra), which is not as good as this one. Therefore, one should not refer to “the Blomstedt performance” as the Classical Music Snots do when engaging in their conductor worshiping.

This Chorus sings with a lovely straight-tone (no noticeable vibrato), giving them perfect intonation in all (SATB) sections, especially the powerful soprano section. (The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s currently inferior Tanglewood Festival Chorus should use them as a study model of choral excellence). And their diction is very precise German. I should also say that pretty much any Chorus can sing loudly, but only the finest and best Chorus can sing softly, quietly and lovely and with a straight-tone which gives each section perfect intonation; the perfect blending of voices. This Chorus does just that. Some of their finest and most lovely, touching singing is when they’re singing more quietly as they do in the most popular/well-known movement of this work, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Herr Zebaoth!” (“How lovely are thy dwelling places, O Lord of Hosts!”). This movement was one of the pieces that my High School Chorus performed when I served as pianist accompanist for them, which was an honour, and extremely good experience for me. So I learned this movement first and then later heard the rest of the Requiem.

Don’t miss the pedal point (think: the pedals of a pipe organ) in the fugue beginning at 31.05 in the video. The low D pedal point note is played by the double-basses and (I think) the cellos as well. They have to bow at varying speeds on their low D — contrary to the way they usually bow synchronised per their bowing instructions — in order to keep the sound of the bass D going throughout the fugue nonstop and uninterrupted as if played by the low D pedal on a pipe organ. Hence the word, “pedal point.” Get you get that? I’m getting technical here. It’s fine for us who like technical, but for you nontechnicals, oh well! I don’t know if the organist is holding down the low D pedal or not, since I haven’t seen the conductor’s score. A pedal point begins on a consonance chord as it does here. Then it sustains (or repeats) through dissonance harmonies as it ends back on a consonance chord, like it does here at the end of the fugue. I think maybe the tympanist is also playing a constant low D since I see him playing nonstop throughout the fugue.

The camera work is excellent in this performance. Clearly, the Danish network that produced this video knows the choral score as well as I do. Most extraordinary really. During the choral fugues, for example, when each section of the Chorus entered with the subject of the fugue the camera was right on them showing their entrance, and they did the same with other choral entrances.

I like the bass soloist in this performance, and I would have liked the soprano if she had sung with a lovely straight tone, which she slightly did in the last couple of measures as she blends into the clarinet who enters on the same pitch she’s singing. I could have done without her vibrato. For me, vibrato is at its worst with screaming soprano divas/soloists, followed by screaming tenor divas/soloists. If I were the Chorus Director, I would have fortified the tenor section a bit with a few more tenors. That’s not at all a criticism. It’s just that I like a very strong tenor section. Their tenor section could have been a little more powerful for my preference. There’s one note, for example, (and no, I’m not quibbling about one note) in the score where some conductors ask the tenor section to bring out that note like stately trumpets, and I didn’t hear that brought out strongly in this performance. It’s about a measure before the alto section comes in and introduces one of the fugal sections on the text, “Herr, du bist würdig zu nehmen Preis und Ehre und Kraft/Lord, Thou art worthy to receive all praise, honor, and glory.”

The Chorus is on the Chorus risers in this general formation:

Basses Tenors
Sopranos Altos

Someone who knows of my musical background usually asks me, “Did you ever perform the Brahms?” Yes I did, which was a real treat for me. I remember studying the Brahms on my own one Summer with the score and a recording of it. I remember singing every part, so these days I pretty much know it from memory including the fugal entrances. But yes, during my time in Orchestra Choruses, I had the privilege to perform it with the superb Choral Arts Society of Washington in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, and with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Davies Symphony Hall. The Choral Arts performance was with the Cleveland Orchestra because they did not tour with the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus so the Choral Arts Society of Washington was the Chorus chosen for that performance. Lorin Maazel conducted. All I remember about him was that he was difficult to work with. We were splendidly prepared by Norman Scribner but during the one and only rehearsal with Maazel with the Cleveland Orchestra, he didn’t like this and that. I don’t remember exactly what he did and didn’t like. I do remember walking off the stage after the rehearsal thinking: What just happened out there on the stage? Why did that man “tear us apart” so to speak? I wonder if Robert Page and the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus have had the same experience with him? I remember asking other members of the Chorus about what just happened and they didn’t know what to think either. But anyway, as I remember, our performance was superb, as was always the case with the Choral Arts Society of Washington, not because I was in it but because it was and still is a superb Chorus, or at least it was the last time I heard them which was for Norman Scribner’s memorial at Washington National Cathedral. Then after I moved to San Francisco, a couple of years later the equally-superb University of Maryland Chorus performed the Brahms with the National Symphony Orchestra and Antal Doráti conducting. He always preferred the University of Maryland Chorus (also known as The Maryland Chorus). Now that was a performance! I went to two of their performances back-to-back. They gave exquisite performances of that piece. The Maryland Chorus sang with a very warm, rich sound, straight-tone (no audible vibrato) and impeccable diction, which Maryland was well known for. It was stellar! I loved it. Choral excellence at its finest. I remember with the Maryland/NSO performance that The Washington Post classical music critic took issue with the lack of final consonants from the Chorus in the opening measures of the Brahms. The reviewer said: the problem is not with the University of Maryland Chorus as they are known for their impeccable diction. The problem is with Antal Doráti, the conductor. He is not giving the Chorus the final releases in those first measures. So, apparently Dr Traver (the Chorus Director) and Antal Doráti read that review and the next night it was perfect. I heard very clear and crisp final “t’s” such as on “selig sind.”

Ein Deutches Requiem requires a rather large Orchestra. For the sound he wants, this conductor has the cello section placed more in the center of the Orchestra in front of him. There are two harpists and the pipe organ in the hall is used, although it’s barely audible. I heard the organ 2-3 times in the whole piece but that was it and it was not at all loud. One wonders how much time the organist had to spend with the organ before this performance? I sense it was not much time. Was he a guest organist or the Orchestra’s usual keyboardist? I would have cranked up the organ so it could be heard. I’ve never seen the conductor’s score, only the vocal/choral score. What does the score say about the dynamic level for the organ? Just wondering. Does it say that the organ is to be at a “whisper” level? That’s how it sounded.

Scanning the YT comments, some musically-illiterates thought the Brahms was an opera. (roll eyes) An opera is performed with costuming and scenery — obviously there is no costuming or scenery in this performance — and screaming soloists and the Opera Chorus sings with heavy, god-awful, wobbling vibrato.

Most Requiems are pieces for the dead, but Brahms’s Ein Deutches Requiem is a work for the living, from what I’ve always heard about it. We didn’t study it specifically in the Conservatory of Music where I trained, and none of our choral ensembles performed it while I was there. It’s one of my favourite symphonic choral works. I never tire of hearing it, well, that is, when it’s performed as well as it is in this performance from Copenhagen in their relatively new Concert Hall: DR Koncerthuset. It opened in 2009. I like the unique and unconventional way they installed the organ pipes in the hall, or at least the façade.

I do want to mention the current Chorus Director since 2016, Bart Van Reyn, also Chorus Director of the Octopus Symphony Chorus. Bart is superb, although this performance is from before he became Chorus Director. Unfortunately, I can’t find the name of the Chorus Director who prepared the KoncertKoret for this performance. Chau.—el barrio rosa


Symphony Chorus: KoncertKoret
Orchestra: SymfoniOrkestret/Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Sopran: Camilla Tilling
Baryton: Peter Mattei
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor
© Danmarks Radio

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1Awhile back, someone e-mailed me asking which conductor was my favourite for the Brahms’s Ein Deutches Requiem. I appreciated the e-mail, but I guess they had not read my article about conductor worshiping, which I don’t do. For me, it’s not about the conductor. With a choral work it doesn’t matter which conductor it is, if s/he has an inferior Chorus to work with it won’t matter how s/he conducts the work, and that’s because there is only so much that can be done with a podunk/inferior/amateurish Chorus. The Brahms is a symphonic choral work so my focus is on the Chorus and Orchestra, which Chorus was selected for the performance and how well they were prepared by the Chorus Director. I really couldn’t care less who the conductor is, for the most part. Every performance I have heard of the Brahms — including the performances I was a chorister in — all pretty much sounded the same as far as how the conductor conducted the piece, including this performance from Copenhagen which incidentally is conducted by Herbert Blomstedt who is a conductor laureate of the San Francisco Symphony. One thing with the Brahms I’ve never understood is why the soprano soloist always brought in for this piece has to sing with wobbling vibrato when the Chorus doesn’t (or usually doesn’t). And at the end of her solo the clarinet comes in on the same pitch she’s singing and they’re supposed to blend perfectly with one going into the other (her voice matching the clarinet) and that is not at all possible when her voice is fluttering and wobbling with vibrato versus singing with a straight tone to match the clarinet at that point in the score. Soprano Arleen Auger sang that part beautifully in her performance with Robert Shaw’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Her voice matched perfectly with the clarinet.

Related:

What happened to the renowned University of Maryland Chorus?

BSO and the University of Maryland Concert Choir perform Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45