Houston Chamber Choir brings warmth and intimacy to chamber-ized Brahms Requiem

Sun Nov 07, 2021 at 1:54 pm
By Steven Brown
Robert Simpson led the Houston Chamber Choir in Brahms’ German Requiem Saturday night at South Main Baptist Church.

Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem offers a different message than, say, Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem

Brahms draws his text from the Bible instead of the Catholic mass for the dead, and his chosen verses focus on consoling the living rather than pleading for mercy for sinful departed souls. In keeping with that, meditativeness and lyricism dominate the music. 

Those qualities came to the fore more than usual Saturday night, when the Houston Chamber Choir performed the German Requiem at South Main Baptist Church.

Some of the difference came inevitably from having just 24 voices at work rather than a hundred-plus chorus—and from using the condensation of the orchestral part for two pianists at one keyboard. But artistic director Robert Simpson and his singers also put the accent on polish and refinement.

The choir’s first two words—“Selig sind,” or “Blessed are,” divided over three quiet chords—laid the groundwork. The sopranos’ pure, clear tone outlined the chords’ ascent, while the rest of the choir complemented that with its mellowness. That was all it took to create an air of intimacy, and the choir’s poise carried through even as the music blossomed.

The smoothness was especially telling in the central movement, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen.” The music is predominantly a tone-painting of the blessedness awaiting those who dwell in the Lord’s house, and the choir’s warmth and lilt made it glow.

At times, finesse couldn’t make up for the absence of a bigger group’s heft. The second movement’s opening, declaring that all flesh is as grass, lacked the weighty, ominous tread that helps drive the point home. The proclamation that breaks in later in the movement, declaring that the word of the Lord endures forever, didn’t have the trumpeting force that can make it such a galvanizing moment.

But the section that followed—the first of the German Requiem’s three exuberant fugues—showed that the choir often could make up in energy and pointedness for what it lacked in sheer power.  The group’s basses launched that initial fugue with a hale-and-hearty vigor, and the rest of the singers added their own vitality.

So it was in the other two fugues. And when a gentler motif interrupted the flood of Brahms’ counterpoint, the choir’s sweetness made the change all the more vivid. That especially held true in the climactic last fugue, where the cries of “Preis und Ehre”—“praise and honor”—gained from having a contrast to set them off.

In the final movement, Simpson and the choir again spun out Brahms’ lyricism in long, smooth lines that enhanced the music’s spaciousness and finality. And the group gave the final pages a stillness that enabled the music to taper off as if it were disappearing into eternity.

Given that the choir so often emphasized clear, vibrato-less tone, the two soloists made part of their impact because their unabashed full-throatedness gave them an impact of their own.

Where some sopranos aim to give “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” an angelic, ethereal aura, Cynthia Clayton’s riper tones made its motherly sentiments more human and urgent. Her vibrato was ample, but stayed resolutely on pitch.

Baritone Héctor Vásquez also sang with a pronounced vibrato, and his dark, commanding tones delivered some of the night’s most viscerally powerful moments. “Herr, lehre doch mich” really sounded like a plea for guidance and understanding; when Vásquez invoked Judgment Day, his voice unleashed the high F-sharps like a cannon.

Rather than playing a modern piano, Brian Connelly and Yvonne Chen sat at an instrument Brahms himself might have known: a Viennese Bösendorfer from the 1850s.

It may not have matched a modern concert grand’s brilliant treble and thunderous bass, but the Bösendorfer contributed its own colors. In quiet moments, its veiled tone paralleled an orchestra’s hush. In the fugues and the Judgment Day explosion, Connelly and Chen’s incisiveness brought out the piano’s bite; chords and counterpoint cut through clearly, complementing the choir’s vitality.

Connelly led into the German Requiem by introducing the audience to the piano, so to speak, via Brahms’ Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21, no. 1. The keyboard work  features a sonorous chordal theme that spawns a vivid array of variations—variously rich-textured, diaphanous or lusty—and Connelly’s fluency highlighted their lyricism and color. In this context, skipping the variations’ repeats served the larger purpose of keeping the spotlight on the Requiem.

The concert began with a salute to caregivers: the premiere of the brief Hymn to Strength by composer J. Todd Frazier, director of the Center for Performing Arts Medicine at Houston Methodist hospital, and Houston Poet Laureate Outspoken Bean.

Bean’s poem centers on a refrain of “I can’t go without your love,” and Frazier fleshes it out with a sinuous melody that sometimes unfolds as a single line, sometimes gains a richer texture around it. The chamber choir, Houston Healthcare Choir and pianist Chen, conducted by M.J. Gallop, brought the music simplicity and warmth, and the message of unity came through.

The concert will be available via stream beginning Nov. 21. houstonchamberchoir.org

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