For the first concert of the Song Company’s 2022 season themed Higher Ground, the program attempted to recreate the intimacy of a music room or a listening party with the focus on the act of listening. Brahms – Ein Deutsches Requiem encouraged listening not only for the audience of the performers but also between the performers themselves.
The concert program was split firstly between the 16th and 19th centuries, beginning with two pieces of religious polyphony and transitioning into two pieces by Johannes Brahms from the 19th century. Secondly, the program was split between the choral and instrumental performances with the pianists Gerard Willems and Francis Greep welcomed on stage to listen to the first two songs and the choir sitting above the stage to listen to the third song without choral accompaniment. In this double splitting of the program, the Song Company amplified the thematic concerns of the chosen pieces which all considered death and the final splitting of the soul and body in death. This attention to the structure of the program as a reflection of the music’s themes and the larger yearly program’s themes of Higher Ground was clever and created a strong framing for the performances.
The first two songs, “Sancte Deus” by Thomas Tallis and “Tenebrae factae sunt” by Marc’Antonio Ingegneri, were chosen as representative of the Renaissance music that influenced Brahms two centuries later but also specifically for the way the four-part polyphony mirrored the four choral parts of Brahms’s “Ein Deutsches Requiem”. In the performances of these short pieces, the way the voices broke up and came back together again was like breaking and reforming waves in a rhythmic tide, matching the performers swaying bodies in waves of sound and movement. In keeping with the rumination on death, the closing of “Tenebrae factae sunt” ended on Jesus’ crucifixion with a solemn and resonant hum that drew the choir’s performance for the first half to a solid conclusion.
After doing their listening, Willems and Greep began their performance of “Variations on a Theme of Hadyn” with the two pianos placed back-to-back on the stage. This piece moved between two main tones of playful and plodding. In the upbeat moments, the pianists seemed to be tossing a ball of sound between themselves with jolting moments keeping the forward momentum. At other times the rhythm slowed to something more slow and plodding with nearly a staccato style. But even then Willems and Greep alternated their emphasis for a dynamic duet that was overall light and cheerful.
For the second half of the program, the split elements of choral and instrumental combined for Brahms’s “Ein Deutsches Requiem”, a piece in seven moments with passages from the Bible with a focus on death, grief, faith, and hope. The first movement opened with a full, rounded sound which was a welcome introduction to the freshly joined choir and pianists before the performance grew in strength and grandeur in the second movement with a piano solo that shifted between high and low energy. The stand-out movement of the performance was the third, featuring the solo performance from Christopher Richardson of passages from Psalms and the Apocrypha spoken directly to God asking for faith. This movement in particular was hypnotic in the combination of Richardson’s steady vocals, a lilting piano, and some beautiful vocal runs from the choir. Amy Moore also provided solo vocals to the requiem with a crystalline clarity to the comfort offered in the fifth movement. In the final movement, with passages from Revelation, the tone dipped to something more sombre but Willems and Greep pulled it all back to the upbeat for a hopeful close.
At the beginning of a bad year in a string of bad years, the Song Company offered a strong reminder of beauty and hope even in the contemplation of death.
Brahms – Ein Deutsches Requiem was performed at City Recital Hall on February 19th and streamed online through Australian Digital Concert Hall on March 2nd
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