Texas Classical Review »Blog Archive» The Houston Chamber Choir Brings Warmth and Intimacy to Brahms Chambered Requiem


Robert Simpson conducted the Houston Chamber Choir in Brahms’ German Requiem Saturday night at South Main Baptist Church.

Johannes brahms A German requiem offers a different message than, say, Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem.

Brahms derives his text from the Bible instead of the Catholic Mass for the dead, and his chosen verses focus on the consolation of the living rather than mercy for dead sinful souls. In keeping with this, meditation and lyricism dominate the music.

These qualities manifested themselves more than usual on Saturday night, when the Houston Chamber Choir performed the German Requiem at South Main Baptist Church.

Part of the difference inevitably came from having only 24 voices at work rather than a hundred choirs and using the condensation of the orchestral part for two pianists on a single keyboard. But artistic director Robert Simpson and his singers also placed emphasis on polish and refinement.

The first two words of the choir – “Selig sind” or “Blessed be”, divided into three calm chords, laid the groundwork. The pure and clear tone of the sopranos underlined the ascension of the chords, while the rest of the choir complemented this with their sweetness. That was all it took to create an air of intimacy, and the choir’s balance was maintained even as the music blossomed.

The softness was particularly revealing in the central movement, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen”. The music is primarily a tonal painting of the bliss that awaits those who dwell in the house of the Lord, and the warmth and melody of the choir made it shine.

Sometimes the smoothness couldn’t make up for the lack of weight of a larger group. The opening of the second movement, declaring that all flesh is like grass, lacked the heavy, menacing tread that helps drive the point home. The proclamation that erupts later in the movement, declaring that the word of the Lord endures forever, lacked the bugle force that can make it such a galvanizing moment.

But the section that followed, the first of German RequiemThe three exuberant fugues of, showed that the choir could often compensate in energy and acuity for what it lacked in power. The group’s basses kicked off this initial fugue with vigorous vigor, and the rest of the singers added their own vitality.

So it was in the other two fugues. And when a softer motif interrupted the flow of Brahms’ counterpoint, the softness of the chorus made the change all the more vivid. This was especially true in the last climactic fugue, where the cries of “Preis und Ehre” – “praise and honor” – gained a contrast to trigger them.

In the final movement, Simpson and the choir again spun Brahms’ lyricism into long, smooth lines that enhanced the space and purpose of the music. And the band gave the final pages a stillness that allowed the music to fade away as if it vanished into eternity.

Since the choir emphasized a clear, vibrato-free sound so often, both soloists were part of their impact because their full, shameless throats gave them an impact of their own.

Where some sopranos aim to give “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” an angelic and ethereal aura, Cynthia Clayton’s more mature tones made her maternal feelings more human and urgent. Its vibrato was ample, but remained resolutely on the pitch.

Baritone Héctor Vásquez also sang with a pronounced vibrato, and his dark, bossy tones delivered some of the most viscerally powerful moments of the night. “Herr, lehre doch mich” really sounded like a call for guidance and understanding; when Vásquez invoked the Day of Judgment, his voice triggered the high-pitched F sharps like a cannon.

Rather than playing a modern piano, Brian Connelly and Yvonne Chen sat down in front of an instrument that Brahms himself might have known: a Viennese Bösendorfer from the 1850s.

It may not have matched the brilliant highs and thundering bass of a modern concert grand piano, but the Bösendorfer brought its own colors. In quiet moments, its hazy tone paralleled the silence of an orchestra. In the Fugues and the Doomsday Blast, Connelly and Chen’s incisive character brought out the bite of the piano; the chords and counterpoint shine through clearly, complementing the vitality of the choir.

Connelly drove in the German Requiem by introducing the audience to the piano, so to speak, via Brahms Variations on an original theme, Op. 21, no. 1. The keyboard work presents a theme of sonic chords that engenders a dazzling range of variations – variously rich in texture, diaphanous or vigorous – and Connelly’s fluidity has brought out their lyricism and color. In this context, skipping the repetitions of the variations served the larger purpose of keeping the spotlight on the Requiem.

The concert began with a tribute to caregivers: the premiere of the brief Hymn to Strength by composer J. Todd Frazier, director of the Center for Performing Arts Medicine at the Houston Methodist Hospital, and Houston Poet Laureate Outspoken Bean.

Bean’s poem centers around a chorus of “I can’t leave without your love,” and Frazier stuffs it with a curvy melody that sometimes unfolds in a single line, sometimes gaining a richer texture around it. The chamber choir, Houston Healthcare Choir, and pianist Chen, conducted by MJ Gallop, brought simplicity and warmth to the music, and the message of oneness came through.

The concert will be available to stream from November 21. houstonchamberchoir.org

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