Seraphic Fire reaches the heights with a moving Brahms Requiem

By Lawrence Budmen

Tamara Wilson, winner of the 2016 Richard Tucker Award, was the soprano soloist in Seraphic Fire's performance of Brahms "German Requiem" Friday night in Fort Lauderdale.

Tamara Wilson, winner of the 2016 Richard Tucker Award, was the soprano soloist in Seraphic Fire’s performance of Brahms’ “German Requiem” Friday night in Fort Lauderdale.

Brahms’ German Requiem occupies a special place in the choral repertoire. Unlike many composers, Brahms did not set to music the Latin Mass for the Dead. Instead he conceived a seven-movement score based upon a collection of Biblical passages that refer to death, mourning and ultimate heavenly transcendence. The  score is uniquely tender and soulful.

Originally conceived for large choral and orchestral forces in 1868, Brahms made a transcription for four-hand piano and chamber choir in 1871 to be performed at the home of a patron in London. Seraphic Fire artistic director Patrick Quigley has championed this reduced version, and the Miami-based choir’s 2011 recording of the score was nominated for a Grammy Award.

On Friday night Quigley again led this rarely heard edition of Brahms’ masterwork and the performance at Fort Lauderdale’s All Saints Episcopal Church easily surpassed that on the recording.

In many ways Brahms’ chamber setting sounds like a completely different score than the orchestral original. Smaller in scale and less monumental, the music emerges more intimate and personal. The effect is closer to Brahms’ lieder and even his Liebeslieder Waltzes, albeit in deeply reverent tones. For those unfamiliar with the German Requiem, this version is a fine introduction while Brahms aficionados will find it an intriguing alternative.

Deploying a 21-voice choir, Quigley brought out the warmth and depth of expression in Brahms’ melodic lines.  The second movement “Denn alles Fleisch ist wie Gras” (For all flesh is as grass) was paced slowly, inexorably gathering momentum. Employing flexible tempos that were true to the performance style of Brahms’ era, there was real contrast in the central folklike section with its more fluid pace and brighter vocal projection.

The choir’s corporate sonority was full and smooth, never turning harsh even at top volume. Quigley is masterful at delineating contrapuntal writing. Fugal voicings were clear and spot on, unlike the sometimes murky articulation in performances by larger choirs. The cathartic finale rang out triumphantly, the culmination of a deeply moving performance and one of Quigley’s finest efforts.

Brahms composed the fifth movement “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (You now have sorrow) for soprano and chorus after he had completed the initial score. It was sung by Tamara Wilson, a rising Verdi soprano, who earlier this week won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award. Wilson has a powerful instrument which she astutely held in check, and she sang with great subtlety and attention to the contemplative text. Her vast vocal range was free of breaks between registers, with her voice turning radiant on high notes.

Dashon Burton’s commanding bass-baritone resounded through the sanctuary in imposing fashion as he told of the last trumpet sounding and the dead being raised.  With firm low notes and a rich timbre, Burton brought powerful declamation and real expressive drama to Brahms’ dark and powerful setting of this text.

At the keyboard, Scott Allen Jarrett and Justin Blackwell were a virtual orchestra, playing with rotund tone, sensitivity and eloquence.

In the program’s brief first half, the austere Song for Athene was a beautiful example of the late Sir John Tavener’s brand of musical mysticism. Samuel Barber’s typically lyrical “Anthony O’Daley” from Reincarnations and William Henry Harris’ sentimental Edwardian hymn Faire is the Heaven displayed the choir’s velvety blend. Margot Rood’s pure soprano and the ensemble’s antiphonal vocalism throughout the sanctuary conveyed the Americana of Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.

Seraphic Fire repeats the program 8 p.m. Saturday at Miami Shores Presbyterian Church and 4 p.m. Sunday at the South Miami-Dade Culture Arts Center in Cutler Bay.; 305-285-9060.

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Sat Apr 9, 2016
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