Minnesota Chorale's performance of Brahms' "Ein Deutches Requiem (A German Requiem)," heard Friday night at Hamline University's Sundin Hall, made for compelling listening, all the more for being done in an arrangement for two pianos that Brahms himself made of the massive orchestral score.
Brahms began his Requiem in 1865 in response to the death of his mother. He used sketches abandoned in 1854, the year he lost his friend and mentor Robert Schumann to insanity. This work is the most personal that Brahms ever wrote, as the intimacy of this chamber version helped exemplify.
Chorale Artistic Director Kathy Saltzman Romey has a 30-year history with the work. While preparing to conduct it as a graduate student, she lost three good friends to a car accident. As she put it, "it became my way of processing death."
That personal connection is evident in the intensity and detail of the performance, like, in the first movement, the transition between "Those who sow in tears" into "Shall reap in joy." She had the voices swell dramatically and my heart soared. Throughout, she made viscerally clear the transition from grief to consolation.
In this version, the voices are indisputably center stage, not having an orchestra to compete with. The chorale sang with clarity and purity of tone, even at the extreme ends of the dynamic range. Members used their impeccable musical precision as a vehicle for conveying the work's deep spirituality.
Soloist Michael P. Schmidt has a lyric baritone that is mellifluous and capable of great legato. He was especially moving in his entreaties for understanding in movement III. Soprano Deborah Carbaugh was less effective. She captured all the notes of her solo's high tessitura, but effortfully, missing the transcendence.
Pianists Barbara Brooks and Mary Jo Gothmann proved able accompanists. If they were not able to equal the orchestral climaxes, they compensated with moments of great delicacy, ending the work on a moment of grace.
An unnecessary gimmick marred the performance: The seven movements were juxtaposed with poet Juanita Garciagodoy reading her verses. The poetry was carefully chosen to create a dialogue with the Requiem and was quite compelling in its own right, but it ultimately proved disruptive, taking me out of the emotion of the music.
William Randall Beard writes about music.