By Melinda Bargreen
The Brahms Requiem is one of the great landmarks of the choral/orchestral repertoire – but not everyone who loves the Requiem realizes that Brahms also wrote a version for two pianists. This handy “four-hands” arrangement meant that the music could be heard in private homes, as well as in concert halls and churches with a full orchestra and chorus.
In creating the performance that was heard March 28 at St. Joseph’s Parish on Capitol Hill, conductor Robert Bode used the piano/four hands version, with some amendments: he eliminated the piano accompaniment in the places where it doubled the chorus’ lines, allowing the singers to be heard a cappella in choral-only sections of the score (as they are in the original version with orchestra).
The concert was a centerpiece of a larger “Brahms weekend” that included a symposium and master class centering on Brahms’ music. On hand for the concert as well as the symposia was Dr. George Bozarth, an internationally acclaimed Brahms scholar whose witty and illuminating pre-concert talk with Bode shed light on the composer, his milieu, and the structure of the Requiem.
Those who feared that a single piano would do a poor job of replacing an orchestra may have been surprised by the drama of the big crescendi in the second movement (“Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras”). The two pianists, Lee D. Thompson and Melissa Loehnig, did a remarkable job (except for some minor ensemble/attack issues), lending clarity to the score and support to the singers. It was possible to “hear into” the score and all its interconnections in a way that the richer but muddier orchestration often does not allow.
The two soloists were particularly well chosen: the powerful and affecting Charles Robert Stephens (especially impressive in the opening of “Herr, lehre doch mich”) and the smoothly eloquent, warm-toned soprano Kimberly Giordano.
The chorus proved again why Choral Arts has won top national awards over its 21 years. The singing is just delicious: warm in quality, powerful and intense in the declamatory passages, and airy and effervescent where the Requiem score floats heavenward. This is a chorus that can do anything from crisp articulations to creamy, rich chords and deeply expressive passages from which the text and its meaning can shine forth. Bode coaxes and demands genuine artistry from this 30-member group.
Choral Arts is at the center of a valuable nexus of top-level choruses in the Seattle area that provide professional quality performances – but never quite receive the recognition they deserve. There is usually a strong core audience for such choral groups; many of the region’s music lovers, however, are missing the boat in not partaking of the diversity and beauty presented by Seattle’s choral community. Choruses perform rich, glorious repertoire that extends from the Middle Ages to fresh contemporary scores completed only days before their premiere. There’s literally something for every taste; the tickets are usually reasonable, and the variety is infinite.