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The Concert Singers of Cary presented a moving performance of Johannes Brahms’ Ein deutches Requiem (A German Requiem) at Cary’s Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church. This symphonic choir of 120 voices, augmented by a number of singers from several area high schools, was accompanied by Allen Bailey and Frank Pittman, who played superbly Brahms’ two-piano reduction of his original orchestral score. Artistic Director Lawrence Speakman conducted the well-prepared singers in a performance in very good German that conveyed the great emotional depth of a monumental work expressing our deep mourning at the death of those we love and our expectation of a time of future joy when the living and the dead will be united for all time.
From the beginning to the end of their performance, this obviously well-trained group of singers displayed a warm, homogeneous choral sound. Brahms’ long vocal lines shimmered with clarity; German vowels, so difficult for most choruses, were as pure as I have heard in the best performances of this work. There were problems, however. The demanding tessitura for the soprano voices caused trouble in an otherwise lovely singing of the beginning movement, when sustained high notes and the phrases leading up to them seemed to frighten some younger singers in the choir.
One of the most moving parts of the performance was the second movement, with its powerful setting of “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass,” which the choir sang first in soft voices reflecting the darkness of these words, then filled the church with a ringing forte statement of the same material. No matter how many times one hears the phrases their chilling effect is the same. The lighter portion of this movement, when the music brightens, conveying the need for patience and recognition that the Lord’s mercy endures forever, seems to be a great musical sunrise which the singers captured quite well, preparing them and the audience for the mighty fugue predicting everlasting joy. Although in some places the singers seemed to be struggling with the range and the phrasing in this fugue, they captured Brahms’ intent and brought the music’s heroic nature to life.
The successful performance of the third movement resulted in large part from superb singing by bass-baritone soloist John Kramar, whose voice of great beauty and power was the perfect vehicle to convey the idea that man’s days on earth are few and that he must place himself in the hands of God. The remainder of the movement reflected the excellence of the chorus, which for the most part triumphed over the musical difficulties of some of the phrases.
The fourth movement, for most audiences the most beloved part of this great requiem, was the choir’s most light-filled statement of joy, with lines in all parts seemingly ascending to the heavens. Appropriately enough, it led the choir and listeners to the fifth movement and some of Brahms’ most emotionally-laden, hope-filled music. The soprano soloist, Elizabeth Linnartz, presented a beautiful lyric voice with the power of a dramatic soprano and the ability to sing Brahms’ demanding lines with apparent ease. Her singing of the glorious lines rang with sincerity. The choral lines echoing the truth of her words were simple and full of quiet passion, touching the emotions of all who heard them.
The great words of St. Paul, “Behold, I show you a mystery…Death is swallowed up in victory,” shaped the music of much of the seventh movement, particularly the solo lines sung by bass-baritone John Kramar, whose clarion voice and Brahms’ setting of these words resounded with truth. The powerful text of the extremely difficult fugue of praise of God’s creation brought the movement to a satisfying end, despite the obvious difficulties the sopranos had with the unforgiving lines seemingly ascending far beyond the reach of human voices. All this power-laden music prepared listeners and singers alike for the final movement, which included some of the choir’s most effective singing. Much of it was a recapitulation of the phrase “Blessed are they that mourn” from the first movement, which Brahms has the chorus repeat in various keys as softly as possible. Perhaps the most moving and beautiful vocalism came from the altos, who repeated this phrase in the richest tones of their low register.
This satisfying performance owes much of its success to the skills of piano accompanists Allen Bailey and Frank Pittman, whose excellent playing of the orchestral reduction for two pianos allowed the audience and the chorus to hear the rich harmony and powerful phrasing of the composer in a way they might not have heard, even if a fine orchestra had been present.