Star Chorale: Ein deutsches Requiem

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Published: 2nd August, 2017

Melbourne audiences’ love affair with the music of Johannes Brahms has been enduring and passionate. It therefore comes as no surprise that we have been favoured with two performances of Ein deutsches Requiem within little more than three months. Even had The Star Chorale known of Victoria Chorale’s plans, they may well have decided that there is no such thing as too much Brahms, especially such a splendid work that is so gratifying to sing.

Unlike traditional settings of the requiem, which are based on the Roman Catholic Latin text, Brahms chose his own texts from Luther’s German Bible, selecting passages that focus on the living rather than the dead and give consolation and hope to the grieving. In al likelihood inspired by the death of his mother in 1865, it is a work of deep emotion and humanity. Brahms himself said that he would gladly call it Ein menschliches Requiem (A Human Requiem).

This substantial seventy-minute work in seven movements poses many challenges for the performers, particularly the choir, which has few moments of respite. The orchestra too is sometimes called upon to provide symphonic weight in addition to tender lyricism. Although the opening passages for the lower strings sounded tentative, the orchestra had some fine moments, with the brass making a wonderfully stirring contribution to the sixth movement for the raising of the dead: “Denn es wird die Posaune schallen” (“Because the trombone will resound”).

Lucas de Jong’s well-focused, vibrant baritone also made a significant contribution to this movement, and he brought an uncommon degree of touching musicality to “Herr, lehre doch mich” (Lord, so teach me) in the third movement. His diction, secure intonation and dramatic intensity were outstanding.

When concerts, or other public occasions are prefaced by an acknowledgement of the traditional custodians of a site, the words can seem rather formulaic. On this occasion, however, the words were far from that. A more extended, respectful tribute to Aboriginal culture was followed by an introduction to the Wiradjuri soprano soloist, Shauntai Batzke and her mentor Deborah Cheetham. Batzke negotiated the long phrases and challenging tessitura of “Ich habt nun Traurigkeit” (You have now sadness) with well-projected, steady tone and considerable feeling. Although a more floating quality was needed at times, her voice was at once youthful and substantial. There was some very nice oboe work in this movement and the unexpected spontaneous applause at the end was proof of its general effectiveness.

Musical Director, Dr Kathleen McGuire, kept her forces under tight reign with a clear conducting style well-suited to her enthusiastic choristers. Although the sopranos sometimes struggled with the very top notes, generally their tone was fresh and occasionally even luminous. The fugal passages of the sixth movement could have done with a little more confidence from some sections at times, but there was a real attempt at clean attack and coherence.

An appreciative near capacity audience was an indication of how highly valued and important these community projects are in the cultural life of Melbourne.

Heather Leviston reviewed this performance by the Star Chorale and Orchestra at the Melbourne Recital Centre, July 30, 2017.