Good Friday, 1868 marked the first official performance of the German Requiem, conducted by the composer, Johannes Brahms. 150 years later, Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra, with conductor Rick Prakhoff, ingeniously paired the Brahms with Karol Szymanowski’s rarely performed Stabat Mater, for a Good Friday afternoon concert at Melbourne Recital Centre’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.
The program began with the shorter work, the Stabat Mater. When commissioned to write a commemorative work, Szymanowski’s original idea was a sort of “Peasant’s Requiem”. The death of his young niece in a freak accident (when a large statue of a saint fell on her in a convent garden) caused him such profound grief that the Stabat Mater became his religious project. The suffering of Mary at the foot of the cross has been depicted in music by many composers since the poem appeared in the thirteenth century, and Szymanowski published the text in both Polish and Latin, directing that in Poland the work should be sung in Polish, and that elsewhere Latin was appropriate. The work was first performed in Warsaw in 1929, with Szymanowski’s sister Stanislawa (the mother of the young girl whose tragic death inspired the nature of the work) as soprano soloist.
Solo winds and the lightest of strings atmospherically indicated the aloneness of the grieving Mother of Christ standing at the foot of the cross. Lorina Gore’s shimmering soprano voice over the plaintive woodwind solos invited us into this intimate scene. Delicately orchestrated, the parallel motion of parts in fourths and fifths was spiced with chromaticism – sparse and simple, but harrowing. The women of the very large choir ably supported this personal vision.
In the second of six movements, the orchestra’s threatening ostinato led to the introduction of baritone, Warwick Fyfe. His very ably sung declamatory solo line sought to show the intensity of the scene, and together with full choir and an incessant bass drum, produced a big dramatic sound, hinting to what was the most problematic aspect of the whole afternoon.
The orchestra of strings, full wind, four horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, timpani, and percussion filled the stage extension, with players right to the edge of the stage, in front of the choir of well over 100 voices. In a superb acoustic where one can almost hear a pin drop from stage (and auditorium) the huge full sound seems to take the level “into the red”, as I remember from old sound recording days.
The following movement introduced the supporting alto soloist, Belinda Patterson, in a prayerful duet with a clarinet, and later the soprano and women’s voices. Patterson and Gore sounded well together, and the tightness of the whole orchestral, choral and solo ensemble impressed. The following movement called for whole chorus a cappella with soprano and alto solos very softly throughout. Here the acoustic was perfect for the music. The balance of the choir, although heavily weighted with sopranos and altos, was fine, and the soloists could easily be heard.
Fyfe’s authoritative baritone solo in the fifth movement was delivered with great commitment, but his sterling efforts were less than completely rewarded, as the full orchestral and choral depiction of the day of judgement, with plenty of low brass, was just too much for the Hall. Even in the final movement, also full chorus and orchestra, the soloists were clearly giving their all, with little reward, until the quiet finish.
Following the interval, we were treated to Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem. Although the term “Requiem” is used, it has no connection with the Latin (Catholic) Requiem. Brahms had been a Protestant before losing his faith, and chose the texts from Luther’s translation into German of the Bible. Preferring to find hope in eternal bliss these selected words make no mention of Christ, the crucifixion, or the day of judgement.
Herr, lehre doch mich, the third movement, and then later the sixth movement, afforded the audience more opportunities to hear Warwick Fyfe. The text indicates a plea for guidance, and a sense of humility, but his solos came across more as commands. It would have been nice to hear more lyricism in his method, rather than the stentorian approach he had used to great effect in the more declamatory Szymanowski work. It was as if he were doing battle with the orchestra again, as the orchestral forces combined and the texture thickened. The acoustic effect of the long loud pedal notes in basses, trombones and tuba almost obliterated all the rest of the orchestra, chorus and Fyfe towards the end of the third movement.
Soprano Lorina Gore sat on stage for a long time before her chance to sing in the beautiful fifth movement Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit, then stood and immediately opened with perfect ringing top notes floating above the more delicate orchestral lines. Her very satisfying solo line was complemented perfectly by the sensitive chorus.
The Melbourne Bach Choir clearly enjoyed singing this work, with its wonderfully singable choral parts in rich Romantic style, apart from the quasi-Baroque fugal sections. Although early in the work the choir was less forthcoming, they warmed to the task, with the shaping of phrases sounding more natural, and clarity of text and parts mostly excellent. The fugal sections were confidently handled by all voice parts. Only a couple of times did the tenors, in the far distant corner, seem to momentarily need a little guidance to get back on track. With fewer male voices occupying the back rows a long distance from the conductor, I would be interested to hear them singing from the front rows instead. It was good to see their Choral Scholars participating in this concert alongside the more experienced choristers. This healthy mix of ages is not only good for the choral sound, but also the future of choral singing in this city.
The Melbourne Bach Orchestra, with Concertmaster Roy Theaker, is also an ensemble of very experienced and some younger players. While almost spilling off the stage, they showed great discipline and commitment under Prakhoff’s clear baton. There were several superb woodwind solos, some beautiful horn sections, and the brass were also in good ensemble form. Timpani and percussion were sensitive, and the string playing was consistently good throughout. There were just a few mildly untidy entries or cut-offs for the whole afternoon.
The disappointment was that the acoustic is not ideal for these forces. I love the Melbourne Recital Centre. It is comfortable and accessible, with no interference from outside noise. It is perfect for hearing choirs of all sizes, acoustic solos, chamber ensembles and chamber orchestras. It was not designed for the big concerts in the auditorium, where the sound suffers at the biggest and most impressive musical moments. Backstage wasn’t planned for these forces either, unless the Salon is hired as an assembly area. But the auditorium holds about 850 with the stage extended, and that’s probably an ideal number for the Melbourne Bach Choir (and like ensembles) to aim for in their audiences.
This concert presents a dilemma: do you hold your concert in a draughty and ill-equipped large church, or the capacious and expensive Hamer Hall, or Melbourne Town Hall? Do you keep your orchestral size at less than the composer intended? Or do you make do with the difficulties once in a while, as the whole experience of performing these works is not diminished for the choir, which gets to enjoy the music-making, and the audience which still loves to hear these works?