Amo, Amas, Amateur
Johannes Brahms: A German Requiem
Barbara Bonney (soprano)
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)
Carnegie Hall Workshop Chorus
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Andre Previn (conductor)
Even within the general neglect of classical music in contemporary society, there are genres that fall farther under the table of mass consciousness. Choral music in general is a dying art and pockets of it are all but defunct. Brahms was a prolific composer in the medium, his a cappella works now relegated to the status of footnotes, even though prizes such as the Marienlieder and the Four Songs for Women’s Chorus, Two Horns and Harp are some of his finest statements of poignancy. The gruff master also wrote extensively for an even more obscure form, the glee club, and consistently stoked the fires of convivial choruses in an age when this type of masculine bonding was de rigeur for an educated member of the community. Schubert was a tireless creator for these forms as well and it is sad that the public no longer cares about, nor has any conversance with, their unique charms. However, there is still a dedicated group of people who love this type of music, and annually they converge upon New York for the Robert Shaw Choral Workshop, a Carnegie sponsored institution that furthers and fosters the joy of vocal music making for its own sake. Although many of the students for this week-long seminar are professional choral directors, during this time together they belong to that most noble and endangered of all species, the committed amateur.
The participants are provided with a fine ensemble in the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and, this particular year, with the services of one of the best of the current crop of guest conductors. Andre Previn proves himself each year in his appearances with the New York Philharmonic, somehow able to coax the very best from those inconsistent players. With soloists who will be traveling with him to Pittsburgh next week for a reprise, Maestro studied probably the single greatest choral work since Bach in the currently ubiquitous Brahms’ Requiem. The resulting performance was highly satisfactory.
Maya Gunji’s powerfully eloquent timpani propelled a primeval second movement, this atavistic approach reminiscent of the first von Karajan recording. The violins in this moving section sounded all the more lush since they are excluded from the first movement, which was made especially earcatching by the richness of the St. Luke’s lower strings. David Wilson-Johnson has a stentorian baritone and employed it deftly in the third and sixth movements. The complex double fugue that ends the third was expertly paced and crafted, the blending of orchestral and choral sounds striking just the right chord of impact and import. Previn led a very beautiful fourth movement, emphasizing the comfort and joy of the cradle’s rocking.
Barbara Bonney was disappointing in her one solo, inspired by the death of the composer’s mother. Her voice is big enough, but went flat near the beginning of her part and never really soared above the orchestra as it should have done. The most impressive performance was the majestically integrated sixth movement, the final fugue growing organically out of the previous musical material. To be sure, this pick-up group had its moments of choral blemish, the overall effect sometimes shrill and imbalanced, but overall I was amazed at how unified the voices in concert were with only one week of rehearsal time. That week was undoubtedly a fine learning experience; as a listening one it left a solid impression on the friendly crowd and proved to be the most eloquent reading of this oft played piece this season.
Frederick L. Kirshnit