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Johannes Brahms, Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45; Seraphic Fire, Professional Choral Institute, Teresa Wakim, soprano, Paul Max Tipton, baritone, Justin Blackwell & Scott Allen Jarrett, piano, Patrick Dupré Quigley, conductor, Seraphic Fire Media SFM 614325731428 ©2011, TT 58:55, $18.00.
It was tempting to begin this review similarly to the way that I began the very first CD review I wrote for CVNC nearly a decade ago, of a new recording of J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations. With so many recordings of this work on the market (Arkiv Music lists 94!), why, other than for vanity purposes, is someone issuing another one? From the above listing, you will immediately see, however, what is different about this one and why it is worth looking into: the piano-four-hand accompaniment. Some three or four of the 94, including one by The Sixteen under Harry Christophers using an 1872 Bösendorfer, but not this one, are of this version. (Brahms owned an 1868 Streicher at the time.)
It has come to be known as the "London Version," but it was not created for that audience. Brahms’ publisher asked him to make this version in 1869, shortly after the Leipzig première (It was composed 1865-1868, and had its first performance in Switzerland in 1868.), probably because, as with many such piano arrangements, it represented an opportunity for increased sales since the score could then be purchased for in-home use; in those days, there was a piano in every parlor and families and friends entertained themselves around it. Thus it had been around for a couple of years before the 1871 London première of the work, using this version, in the parlor of a high-society home with a chorus of 30 singing an English translation now lost.
The forces here are nearly double that number, with Seraphic Fire’s 20 augmented by the two guest soloists and the 30 singers of the Professional Choral Institute, both organizations that are likely to be unfamiliar to readers. The former, based in Miami, FL, will be celebrating its 10th anniversary next month; the latter, a two-week early-summer intensive workshop, is newer, a collaborative effort between Seraphic Fire and the Choral Music Studies department of the University of South Florida in Tampa, which is headed by Dr. James K. Bass, chorus master for Seraphic Fire and a member of its bass section. Even so, they are in stark contrast with the often massive combined-choir/chorus forces assembled for performances of the work, or even with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Neither would they be mistaken for a vocal quartet or even octet, however, which might more appropriately qualify for the designation: “A Personal Requiem,” the title Quigley gives to his introductory note on page 5 of the accompanying booklet. That enjoyable and informative note is colloquially written, as if he were speaking to the reader informally. The performance is in the original German, with text and translation included on pages 6-9.
Full personnel are listed and recording credits given on page 4 of the booklet; a significant omission is the make and model of the piano. Tracks and timings are on page 3. The producer was Grammy-winner Paul Rutenberg. The recording venue was the USF Concert Hall, whose unspecified seating capacity is presumably considerably larger than those of the home venues intended for performances of this version, the aforementioned London parlor, as well as Clara Schumann’s parlor in which Quigley, in his concluding paragraph, invites the reader to imagine sitting to listen with her and the composer at the keyboard. This perhaps explains the larger forces used? Thus, this performance is in no way an attempt to replicate the London première. Neither does it come across as a truly intimate one. Rather, it strikes what can perhaps be characterized as the best happy medium. Organization descriptions and artist bios fill the balance of the booklet’s inside pages. The cover image, repeated in smaller size on the back one, is of a solar eclipse. The organization’s name comes from the second line of William Billings’ hymn Invocation.
This version does indeed allow many details of the choral writing to be discerned and better appreciated because they are not lost in a mass of sound. The piano supplies adequate support, and gives a different, more intimate feel to the instrumental writing. Quigley takes many sections at a brisker pace than many conductors do – some stretch it out to 80 minutes. Brahms was known to have railed against overly sluggish tempos. His theory was one of elastische tacht, flexible time, and those chosen by Quigley seem appropriate and natural, although they did not seem particularly unusual to me, for the director under whom I sang the work is not fond of sluggish ones either. The chorus is as crisp as a Baroque one, using no vibrato, and in spite of Quigley’s avowed use of rubati and accelerandi, à la Brahms himself in his own performances, according to Clara Schumann, who avoided those and complained about his.
Pianists Blackwell and Jarrett are both Boston-based, respectively associate director and director of music at Marsh Chapel, but both have NC connections: the former, a SC native and graduate of Furman University, has appeared with the Charlotte Symphony, and the latter is the director of the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte, the choral branch of the symphony, so they may be familiar to some readers. Wakim, who has been nominated for a Grammy for this performance, is also Boston-area based (Belmont), while Tipton is based in Minneapolis/St. Paul. All acquit themselves superbly.
Because this is so different from the generally grandiose and ponderous performances with orchestra that we are used to hearing, it may take you a while to accustom yourself to this version. Because I prefer more intimate music, it didn’t take me any time at all, and I found it truly wonderful – so much so that I listened to it three times in succession in a single evening, not just because I was preparing to write this review: I nearly never listen twice in a row even in those circumstances, and I appreciated something more each time that had gone by me previously. Now I want to hear one of this version with a yet smaller ensemble, say 20 voices, like Seraphic Fire alone. If you have travel plans that involve Florida, try to time them to take in one of its performances. They’ve made quite a reputation for themselves, and if this CD is a representative sample, it’s well deserved. This version of the Requiem is apparently experiencing a comeback; there was a performance locally a few weeks ago that I was unable to attend due to a conflict, but a discriminating friend who did said it was very successful and rewarding. You will find this CD rewarding if you invest in it.