Impressive performances of Brahms choral works, including the German Requiem from Kapiti Chamber Choir

Brahms: Nänie, Op.82
Alto Rhapsody, Op 53
A German Requiem, Op 45

Kapiti Chamber Choir and orchestra, conducted by Eric Sidoti, with Ellen Barrett (contralto), Janey MacKenzie (soprano), Roger Wilson (baritone)

St. Paul’s Church, Paraparaumu

Sunday, 6 April 2014, 2.30pm

A full church greeted choir, soloists and orchestra for a very rewarding concert of Brahms’s choral music.  It was a very warm afternoon (Paraparaumu reached 24deg.) which was hard on the performers.  Nevertheless, they responded magnificently.

The first work was new to me, a piece written in memory of a friend of Brahms.  The title means ‘song of mourning’.  It had an appealing orchestral introduction, in which an oboe melody was particularly notable.  The choir sopranos then entered quietly; it seemed to take them a few moments to settle in. A gradual crescendo emphasised the words of the poem by Friedrich Schiller – all of the German pronounced exceedingly well and clearly by the choir.  There were tricky chromatic passages to be negotiated, on the whole successfully.  The men’s tone was smooth, but lacked character much of the time.  However, in the main the attractive work was tastefully and carefully performed.

Having had Schiller, we now turned to the other great German poet, Goethe.  The setting for contralto, male chorus, and orchestra is a moving, even heart-rending piece.  The arresting orchestral opening sends shivers down the spine, while the striking alto solo and the sombre orchestral accompaniment are richly Romantic, in the best sense of the word.

Throughout this and the following work, the flutes and oboe were particularly outstanding, but all the players and singers performed well. Ellen Barrett’s singing was beautifully controlled and impeccably phrased, although she employed a little too much portamento for my taste – but I daresay it was authentic for Brahms’s time.

The entry of the men was very well done; the rich harmonies and mellow yet soft tone were most satisfying.  The gorgeous ending on the words ‘sein Herz’ (his heart) left a feeling of nostalgia, yet completeness.

Ambitious it was for the choir to tackle Brahms’s Requiem, which is one of the major works in the choral repertoire, though not one of the really large ones.

The deliberate opening tempo was appropriate for the theme, and it was immediately apparent that great attention had been given to detail.  Words were excellent, tone mainly fine, and generally, intonation was good, although the occasional top note here and in the earlier works was not quite reached. Dynamics were well observed.

The choir had complicated fugues to sing in at least two of the movements, and in the 6th movement, ‘For here we have no continuing city’, the choir is in eight parts.

The choristers were obviously well-trained and secure; the orchestral horns were not so, but then they had a great deal to do, and I doubt it was easy playing.  All the orchestra worked hard, not least young trumpeter, Sarah Henderson.

The third movement, ‘Lord, make me to know mine end’ comprised  mainly a solo for baritone Roger Wilson.  Roger has sung this work many times; the printed programme reported that he first sang it in the Durham St. Methodist Church in Christchurch, and he dedicated his performance to the memory of the three organ builders who were killed in that building in the February 2011 earthquake.  I found I was sitting on the ‘wrong’ side of the church to hear him to the best effect; the space required for the orchestra meant that the soloists for this work were very much to one side.  However, any deficiency was not due to lack of clarity or tone from the singer.

The fugue for the choir at the end of that movement, ‘But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God’ is a very taxing sing, as I know from experience.  Of the various entries the clearest was from the sopranos – but the acoustic could not really cope with the complexities.

The beautiful chorus usually known in English as ‘How lovely are thy dwellings’ was captivating; the beautiful suspensions in the orchestral part were splendid, the cellos being particularly important. The men’s entry and accompanying part were sung with sensitivity and grace.

‘And ye now therefore have sorrow’ featured Janey MacKenzie singing strongly, and with great clarity of diction. A little more soft singing would have made her performance even more memorable.  The choir’s part in this movement, sung seated, was very grateful on the ear.  The beauty of Brahms’s writing on the words ‘As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you’ I always find very moving.

The sixth movement, ‘For here have we no continuing city’ (Roger, and Christchurch again?) features choir as well as the soloist.
Here, as elsewhere, the pizzicato from the cellos was very telling, having both accuracy and tone.  The choir excelled itself in the varying moods of both text and music.  There was plenty for the young trumpeter to do, and she did it well.  The words ‘O death, where is thy sting, O grave, where is thy victory?’ were sung as detached notes, giving emphasis to the meaning.

The seventh movement, ‘Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord’ had the woodwind giving a thrilling edge to the climaxes.  The soaring, rising melody on the words ‘their works do follow them’ (denn ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach) was supremely beautiful and peaceful, leaving the audience with a blessed experience indeed.

I learned that Helen Griffiths, violist, was responsible for getting together the 22-piece orchestra, as she has on many previous occasions.  The choir must be very grateful for her efforts, contacts and not least her persuasive powers.

The printed programme was well set out, and in case of the Requiem, it was very helpful to have not only have full translations but also the Biblical reference for each passage.  It was a nice touch to use Gothic script for the titles of the movements; the script would have been the norm in Brahms’s day.

I find that in reviewing last November’s concert by the choir I said: ‘It struck me that it was high time a district with the population of the Kapiti Coast had a proper performing venue; many towns and districts of smaller size have such a facility, e.g. Martinborough with its Town Hall.  Here, choral concerts are held in a church with an airfield opposite, while chamber music concerts are in a large hall designed primarily for indoor sports, where the audience have to sit on plastic chairs!’

I would reiterate that even more firmly now; a work of the size and complexity of the Brahms Requiem, incorporating an orchestra, deserves a much larger venue, with more spacious acoustics than St. Paul’s Church can offer.  I was told that this venue may not be available for much longer.  In that case, it emphasises the need for a proper performing venue in the district. Not only Martinborough, but Ngaio and Khandallah have their own Town Halls, the former having been built by Wellington City Council, not by a now-defunct local authority.  Upper Hutt has a splendid performance venue.

College halls are a possibility, but are unlikely to have comfortable chairs comparable to those in the church.  However, they would not be likely to have aeroplane noises or flapping blinds, either.

The abiding thoughts on the concert must not be about these factors, but about such wonderful invention on Brahms’s part, and such variety of composition, realised in an impressive performance from all concerned.


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