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Johannes Brahms' Ein Deutches Requiem (A German Requiem, Op. 45), shares with Handel's oratorio Messiah the fact that it is performed far more frequently than the composer's other choral works (e.g., Schicksalslied, Nänie, Gesang der Parzen, Triumphlied, and the "Alto Rhapsody"). It is a sine qua non for all choral societies worthy of the name, as well as for advanced church choirs. Its countless performances since its completion in 1868 have encompassed instrumental forces including the large symphony orchestra for which Brahms conceived it, a reduction of that orchestral score for organ, and even a four-hand piano version authored by the composer (and combining instrumental and choral parts) for home use.
Under the direction of Alfred E. Sturgis, the North Carolina Master Chorale and a fifty-piece orchestra gave a satisfying performance of the Requiem (called "German" because of its texts, selected by Brahms from Martin Luther's German translations of the Hebrew and Greek/Latin scriptures), preceded by the composer's "Tragic Overture."
In a review of a Master Chorale performance from their previous season, I wrote: "This season, the Master Chorale has reached a new and higher level of performance. Their tone, blend, and diction are excellent, a credit to Sturgis' continued mentoring." This excellence is still present (albeit some under-the-pitch high notes from the sopranos in the opening movements); the choral sound is not only well-balanced and well-blended, but also robust enough to overpower the orchestra at times.
Sturgis showed a preference for tempi that were on the fast side in movements II, V, and VII. Indeed, his beat in the "funeral march" second movement fugue kept slipping out of 4 and into 2 beats per measure.
One thing was missing: attention to Brahms' long, sweeping melodic lines (except for the best-known fourth movement, Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen / "How lovely is thy dwelling-place," which was the most lyrically-sung and played movement of the afternoon.) The performance had a metronomic quality which did not allow for the composer's great strength – his measures-long melodies – to provide the quintessential tension and melodic sinews which give this music its power.
As is so frequently the case, and abetted by Brahms' use of a pedal-point undergirding the whole, the third-movement fugue seemed to belie its text: "The redeemed souls are in God's hands, and no torment will come to them." This is a calm, assured statement of faith that suggests a more lyrical, less aggressively sung melodic treatment than it received. The final movement also seemed too fast and heavy for its text: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, that they rest from their labor..."
Gerard Sundberg's clear, resonant baritone contributed beauty and power to the performance. While soprano Marlissa Hudson's voice was silkenly-strong, it was disappointing to hear her breath twice during her opening line even though the tempo was not on the slow side. The placement of both soloists at the front of the stage and behind the conductor led to a near tempo "train wreck" in a passage where soprano and orchestra were a beat apart, likely because the singer could not see the conductor's beat. Sturgis skillfully rescued the situation, getting the orchestra back in sync with the soloist.
The most successful element was the fugue that concludes the Requiem's sixth movement. This is difficult in performance, because the fugue, a forte melodic line, must make its sudden appearance at the end of what sounds like an even louder and dramatic conclusion to the movement. This fugue was the most Brahmsian singing and playing in the performance, well worthy of praise.
There being no overture to the Requiem, it was preceded by Brahms' Tragische Ouvertüre ("Tragic Overture"), Op. 81. Written in the same time-period as the "Academic Festival Overture," this piece is the darker, dramatic foil to the lighter, happy strains of folk tunes in the latter work. Its beginning theme, short and choppy drama, was well-conceived and played. Like the Requiem, however, its more lyrical sections continued as if influenced by the opening passages, lacking the flowing lines that characterize so much of Brahms' writing.
In sum, two great works by one of Western music's iconic composers, played and sung with much beauty, for which a debt of gratitude is owed to the NC Master Chorale and its conductor.