Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The "London Brahms"


Long Beach Camerata Singers, Long Beach

The title of this column is a trifle misleading; Johannes Brahms never went to London, despite being invited numerous times (reportedly, among other reasons, he didn't want to have to put on a tie). But at the urging of his publisher he did arrange his Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 for piano four-hands, an arrangement which became known as the "London version," and it was that arrangement that the Long Beach Camerata Singers performed at the Beverly O'Neill Theater on a warm Sunday afternoon.

Brahms in 1866.
Well, not quite. Brahms arranged the entire work, including the vocal and choral parts, so that the piece could be enjoyed at home by two reasonably skilled pianists. Constructing such arrangements was a common practice back in the days before recordings, when making music in the home was a popular thing. What the Camerata and other choirs do when they want to perform this version in public is remove the choral lines from the accompaniment. Only a cynic would point out the economy resulting from not hiring an orchestra.

Brahms composed his Requiem in bits and pieces. At the premiere in Vienna, only three of what became ultimately seven movements were performed; at the subsequent Bremen and London performances this was expanded to six, Nos. I-IV and Nos. VI-VII. The last movement to be composed, with its soaring soprano solo and text extolling the virtues of motherhood—possibly inspired by the death of the composer's own mother—was placed fifth, and the complete seven-movement whole was performed for the first time in Leipzig in 1869.

That London performance, which took place in 1871, was in English and utilized 30 singers. The Camerata are 75 members strong, and they sang in the original German with English supertitles. Also, since that Vienna premiere only consisted of three movements, Artistic Director James K. Bass allowed an intermission after Movement III. I had never experienced a performance of the work with a break, but I, as well as the audience, found the respite welcome, and I'm sure the singers, who otherwise had to stand for the whole thing, did so too. 

With the substitution of piano accompaniment for the original orchestra, something is lost, but something else is gained. Brahms' orchestral writing is superb, and the orchestral colors add a dimension to the piece lacking in the monochromatic piano. The sixth movement, with its terrifying vision of the Last Judgement, requires the full orchestra to achieve the requisite fury, and the force of a crescendo in the piano doesn't compare. At the same time, with the piano there is an increase in intimacy and direct expression, and the work takes on an almost chamber music quality. This is especially true with a dry acoustic like that of the O'Neill, which totally lacks resonance.

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James K. Bass.
Conductor Bass, who heads the choral program at UCLA, showed an idiosyncratic approach. Tempos were on the whole extremely fast, and there were some tempo variations I had not encountered before. Crisp articulations (the repeated exclamations of "wird weg" at the end of the second movement were like pistol shots) and the clipped ends of phrases prevented the familiar work, which can be a bit of a slog, from becoming ponderous. 

His chorus responded magnificently. I've been writing about the Camerata for close to 20 years now, and they have never sounded better. Formerly a beloved community icon whose performances required a generous spirit to fully enjoy, they have been transformed, first under Jonathan Talberg, then with Robert Istad, and now with Bass in his second year, into a crack professional chorus that needs no such indulgence. Each section sounds rich, full, and beautiful, and they are blended and balanced into the very model of a choral ensemble. Their dynamic range is extraordinary, and in full cry they are absolutely thrilling.

Baritone John Buffett has an attractive, manly baritone and began well. He encountered some trouble with the high notes, where he had to engage a sort of overdrive, and also couldn't quite manage the lows, but in the middle, which is most of the part, he was fine. Oriana Falla is not the angelic type of soprano, a Mathis or Janowitz. Her voice is large, lovely, and vibrant, and she sang her solo with moving conviction.

The pianists did yeoman work in terms both of digital virtuosity and musicality. Na-Young Shin is the Camerata's regular accompanist, while Timothy Durkovic is a familiar figure on the Southern California concert scene.

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Shaw in 1911.
George Bernard Shaw was, famously, not a fan of the Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem. A critic in his younger days, Shaw thought the work something to be "patiently borne only by a corpse." He also wrote, "There are some experiences in life that should not be demanded twice of any man, and one of them is listening to the Brahms Requiem."

Well, I heard the Long Beach Chorale's performance last year, and now the Camerata's, and seem to have escaped unscathed. Both performances were excellent, if very different—the Chorale's was with orchestra—and the work remains firmly in the standard repertoire, the second most performed choral work after Messiah.

However, I don't feel compelled to hear it again next year.


Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (London version)
Long Beach Camerata Singers, Beverly O'Neill Theater, Long Beach, 4:30 p.m., March 31, 2019.
Photos: Brahms: Wikipedia; James K. Bass: University of Miami; George Bernard Shaw: Alvin Langdon Coburn.

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