Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana ended its 2018-19 season with a June 9 performance at McKinley Presbyterian Church of Johannes Brahms' "A German Requiem."
This monumental work, Brahms' longest, was inspired by the death of the composer's mother in 1865. One version of the work was premiered in 1868.
The "German" in the title served notice that the words of the requiem, chosen by Brahms himself from the Martin Luther translation of the Bible, were quite different from the Latin text of the traditional Roman Catholic requiem Mass. The first performances of the Brahms requiem gave notice that a major talent in German music had emerged, perhaps bound for greatness.
I found the BACH performance of this work deeply moving, and the conducting of Joseph Baldwin and the singing of the BACH chorus wholly admirable. What was different about this performance was the use of a four-hand piano accompaniment (made by Brahms himself) rather than the usual orchestral accompaniment.
The playing of the piano version by Marisa Landsverk and Jonathan Young was technically skillful, and worked best in the slow introduction to the first and second movements. But the climactic words of part two, in English translation, "But the word of the Lord endureth forever," did need the impact of a full orchestra to create an effect which can have an overpowering impact.
My favorite moment in this work is in the first, and last, movements, when the musical climax for the chorus is topped by a lovely, gliding vocal line from the sopranos, and in this performance the BACH chorus excelled in these passages.
I also particularly admired the impressive soft singing that conductor Baldwin drew from the chorus in the opening movements. The enunciation of the German text by the chorus was admirably distinct, even in the tumultuous fugal passages of the later portions of the work.
Michael Brand, baritone, sang with moving conviction the solo passages in parts two and six, and his voice and the chorus splendidly led up to what was for me the climax of the work, in part six, on the words, "O death where is thy sting? O, grave, where is thy victory?"
Brahms was sensitive enough to realize that even the most splendid grandeur must be at times relieved and lightened. And so, the fourth movement, on the words "How lovely is thy dwelling place," beautifully sung by the Bach choristers, achieved that relief from more somber matters.
And the following movement, for soprano solo, was sung with convincing compassion by Katherine Buzard. This movement lets the lovely, lonely thread of the soprano solo to contrast with the choral complexities of other sections, and this effect emerged in Buzard's affecting solo.
The final section, "Blessed are dead which die in the Lord," with its inclusion of passages from the opening movement, achieves a perfect balance, and the final word sung by the chorus, "Selig" ("Blessed") was Brahms' stroke of genius. In the explosive applause at the work's end, the audience immediately arose and expressed their admiration for conductor Baldwin, soloists Buzard and Brand, pianists Landsverk and Young and, last but not least, the splendid singing of the BACH chorus.
Conductor Baldwin will next conduct the BACH ensemble on Nov. 10 in favorites from the British choral repertory. In the New Year, 2020, this ensemble will be heard in such works as Joseph Haydn's "Little Organ Mass,"(March 1), and in two favorite cantatas by J. S. Bach on June 7.
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.