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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Brahms Requiem--Piano Four-Hands

I just got back from Edmonton, where I conducted Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem with Pro Coro Canada in the version with piano four-hands.

This was done by Brahms himself and published not too long after it was premiered (the manuscript is in the Library of Congress) and now reprinted by Carus Verlag. This was common at the time for larger works (symphonies, concertos, oratorios, etc.) as this was a practical way to get to know new music (no recordings in those days!). And, of course, Brahms loved the medium of piano four-hands (his Liebeslieder Walzer were written just the year after than the Requiem). The piano part includes the vocal parts--i.e., could be done purely by two pianos--but was also intended for smaller performances, and was first done that way in England in 1871.

This version fell out of favor until about a decade ago when chamber choirs in Europe (especially some of the professional radio choirs) started performing it.

I decided to do it with Pro Coro for our Good Friday program this year. I'd only heard one performance of that version, which wasn't terrific. There are now several recordings extant: with Accentus, the wonderful French choir; Vasari Singers; The Sixteen; the King's College Choir; and a version just for piano. I decided not to listen to any since I wanted to approach this version with a fresh ear to the differences.

I conducted the Reqiem first in 1993 with the Anchorage Music Festival, substituting for Robert Shaw after he'd had a series of TIAs (mini strokes) and his doctors had told him to cut back on his schedule. Since, I'd prepared with the Seattle Symphony for conductor John Nelson, and then twice (in 2007 and 2008) with the Swedish Radio Choir.

With Pro Coro I had five 3-hour rehearsals and we'd expanded the choir to 33 from our usual 24. We ended up with four and a half rehearsals--one of our pianists was involved in a car accident coming to the dress rehearsal, so we ended up with only the last hour and a half for the run-through. The choir was very well prepared by this point, so it was no problem and I would probably have let them go early anyway. We were also lucky in having the hall for two rehearsals, so we'd already worked in the concert hall (Winspear Centre) for Wednesday's rehearsal, allowing us time to figure out balances with the piano and for the pianists to get used to the instrument.

What a great experience to do this version with a small, excellent choir! I still love the full orchestral version and would do it anytime a performance is offered, but the ease of balancing accompaniment with choir, the ability of the choir to sing pure pianos and pianissimos, plus the extra flexibility with rubato made this a great experience.

Our regular accompanist, Jeremy Spurgeon, was joined by Roger Admiral--both are superb pianists and sensitive musicians, so it was a joy to make music with them.

Soloists came from the chorus, with Janet Smith singing the soprano solo in number five and two different baritones, Michael Kurschat and Jihwan Cho, singing numbers three and six, respectively. All did a great job, Janet singing hers from memory. Jihwan is moving to Vancouver, B.C. to pursue doctoral study there at UBC next year, and we'll miss him with Pro Coro.

For anyone with a skilled, smaller choir (anywhere from 30 to 50 or 60), able to handle the vocal demands (and the Requiem IS vocally demanding!), I'd highly recommend it. It isn't just a cheap alternative for those who can't afford an orchestra, but a version with a different artistic sensibility.

1 comment:

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