Brahms' German Requiem seems to be enjoying a surfeit of performances of late, although in truth it's one of the "big" masses (we use the term somewhat loosely) that, like Fauré's Requiem, rarely wears out its welcome. It was sung on March 10 in Hendersonville, there were two performances in Durham, starting with the one under discussion here, and it was also to be done in Hickory on March 24. I don' t know about the Hendersonville group, but the directors of these other concerts had professional and personal ties to Lara Hoggard, practically the last of the great previous generation of choral directors (a generation that included, among others, Robert Shaw); as it happens, Dr. Hoggard passed away on March 16, so the Durham and Hickory performances were dedicated to his memory, and both employed, to varying degrees, the master's 1997 critical edition of Brahms' A German Requiem (or, to use its original title, Ein deutsches Requiem). Hoggard's editon, beautifully presented in full score (and in a handy piano-vocal version, too) by Hinshaw Music, represents his lifetime of study of what was arguably his favorite work; other fans of the piece would find it a fascinating read, quite beyond its musical merit, for there are extensive notes and commentaries, a chart comparing tempi of the various movements as recorded by a dozen distinguished maestri, and much, much more. What Hoggard achieved was a clarification of the music that facilitates precise, remarkably transparent performances; it's a fact that most of the major conductors who have led the work discerned many of the things Hoggard pinpointed through their own study and interpretive skills, but there's no debating the value of the publication for future performances.
In Baldwin Auditorium, the 166 or so members of the Choral Society of Durham, one of our region's best and largest choirs, assembled on risers behind a distinguished orchestra, populated with many of the Triangle's finest instrumentalists. The vocal soloists were soprano Mary Wilson and baritone James Taylor. Prior to the performance, CSD Conductor Rodney Wynkoop addressed the large audience, speaking of his relationship with Dr. Hoggard. We are grateful to the Maestro for permitting us to include a transcript of his remarks at the foot of this review.
Brahms' German Requiem is atypical among the major settings because its text is derived not from the Latin Mass for the Dead but from the German Bible, as selected by the composer. Thus its sections, in Hoggard's translation, are "Blest are they who are sorrowful"; "For mortal flesh is as the grass"; "Lord, teach me to know"; "How lovely are Thy dwellings"; "You now are sorrowful"; "For we have on earth no abiding place"; and "'Blessed are the dead.'" The Durham performance used Hoggard's orchestral parts and incorporated many of his interpretive suggestions but was sung in German, and the program booklet, which contained admirable notes by Susan Dakin, presented a slightly different set of English words. The only major departure from Hoggard's guidance appeared to be the omission of the supplemental organ part, there being no organ in Baldwin (or in most of our other important concert halls hereabouts).
The performance itself was magnificent, as those who are familiar with the work of Wynkoop and this grand choir, always so superbly prepared and disciplined, might well have anticipated. The caliber of the orchestral playing, too, was consistently first rate, from the ethereal contributions of harpist Laura Bryne to the recurring heartbeats provided so distinctly by timpanist John Hanks. At several key points the texture seemed more transparent than ever; surely this was influenced by Hoggard's editing, but Wynkoop, too, merits credit for presenting the work in Baldwin (as opposed to Duke Chapel), and of course for his outstanding leadership. At the first of two perforrnances (the work was repeated on March 24), there were some minor, almost inconsequential moments of imbalance centering on the harp, a fleeting instance of perhaps questionable upper string ensemble, and, at the end, some moisture-induced problems in the trombones. Otherwise, there was nothing amiss during the work's 70-minute course, in which the intellectual genius of Brahms the composer was suffused again and again with spiritual qualities that do not routinely inform performances, even of works like this one. The soprano soloist soared effortlessly and serenely. Taylor's light baritone voice seemed marginally underpowered in the lower portions of his register, but he made much of the words and his participation reflected the levels of partnership that are hallmarks of nearly every CSD undertaking. The large chorus sang with breathtaking precision and accuracy, so even 50+ sopranos, for example, sounded often enough as one; there was comparable excellence among the other three sections. The soft places registered always, the loud passages proved electrifying, and in-between sections exuded a compelling, engaging mix of passion and spirituality that made this one of the best realizations of A German Requiem yet given here. Space does not permit more detailed commentary on the performance, but I must report that the run-up to the fugue and then the fugue itself, in Part VI, were the best I've ever heard, live or on records. The result, overall, was profoundly moving on multiple levels, and for that the audience appeared to be unusually grateful, giving the artists heartfelt, prolonged applause and then in large measure lingering long afterward in the hall to greet and thank the musicians.
The Choral Society of Durham concludes the present season with a Baldwin Auditorium concert of opera choruses and Poulenc's Gloria on May 6.
Remarks delivered prior to the performance by CSD Conductor Rodney Wynkoop:
*"Tonight's performance is dedicated in loving memory to Dr. Lara Hoggard, who passed away exactly one week ago today at the age of 92.
"Dr. Hoggard was the longtime choral conductor at UNC, but his influence on singers and audiences alike was felt all across the U.S.
"His love of choral music was incredibly deep and abiding, and everyone who came into the presence of his thinking, speaking, and performing of music became indelibly imbued with the same love.
"On our stage tonight are singers who first sang under his direction in high school; there are also singers who sang with him in college. Mention his name in almost any collection of singers, and you will find those whose lives he touched through music.
"I myself spent many hours discussing with Dr. Hoggard the many nuances of Brahms' German Requiem — surely the one work which he loved more than all others — and after every visit I found myself astounded at the depth of his knowledge of the score, the meaning of the text, and his own devotion to this musical masterpiece. To hear him speak of the Brahms Requiem — or to listen to a performance of it with him on the podium — was to sense the reverence, the devotion, and the holiness that he felt towards this music.
"He wanted nothing more, I think, than to be intimately in touch with the spirit of Brahms as one senses it through the genius of this amazing composition.
"So now, as we prepare to share this astonishingly powerful music, and as we rejoice in the presence of three members of Dr. Hoggard's family who are with us tonight, I believe that he would wish one thing above all else in the immediate aftermath of his passing: that we each find comfort (as expressed so eloquently in the German Requiem) and that we come to understand our own humanity ever more deeply."