Choirs capture ardor of Romantic compositions

On Friday night the Williams Concert and Chamber Choirs, under the direction of Brad Wells, presented a concert of 19th and 20th-century Romantic works before a large audience in Thompson Chapel. The concert, Emotions Aloft: Romantic A Cappella Choral Music, featured pieces by some of the best-known Romantic composers, like Schumann, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Debussy, as well as songs by far lesser-known composers, like Robert Pearsall, Franz Biebl and Charles Stanford.

The concert began with the Chamber Choir, the smaller choral group, and the song Lay a garland on her hearse by 19th-century British composer Robert Pearsall. The text described the death and burial of a fair maiden, and the music was appropriately hushed and reverent, with subdued dissonance and a slowly rolling rhythm that moved forward like a funeral dirge. The choir was soft and delicate, with strong solo lines clearly audible above the quieter backing chords.

The second piece, The Blue Bird, written by another 19th-century British composer, Charles Stanford, had a similar hushed atmosphere, with muted, homophonic chords supporting a delicate soprano melody. The text describes a bird’s-eye view of a landscape, and the high, soprano line suspended far above the rest of the choir was an excellent musical analogue. Again, the choir was gentle and appropriately hushed, and the sopranos had a wonderfully clear and untroubled tone quite appropriate to the text.
The two Debussy songs sung by the Chamber Choir were more dynamic and complicated than the preceding works, with greater dynamic and contrapuntal contrast, and the choir couldn’t quite muster enough volume and a full enough tone to render the climaxes satisfying and powerful. Debussy is all about color and texture, and I couldn’t help but think that these songs fell flat and lacked a certain richness.

Chamber Choir’s final two songs were both by Brahms. The first was titled Im Herbst (“In Autumn”) and the funereal, melancholy music certainly matched the idea of a dying season. In the third stanza, a brief foray into a major key brightens the textural appearance of “the sun setting,” but the song quickly returns to the more melancholy material and ends with an impassioned and yearning climax. The loud, sustained chords at the end were powerfully sung by the choir and would have been a fantastic ending to the Chamber Choir’s portion of the concert. But a second Brahms song, a silly, folk-like work entitled Der bucklichte Fiedler (“The Hunchbacked Fiddler”) followed. A brief moment of rather literal text-painting aside, the song felt trivial and unnecessary.

The full Concert Choir then joined the Chamber Choir onstage, and the combined forces sang Anton Bruckner’s motet Os Justi, a stunning work the choir had previously sung with the Berkshire Symphony in October. Beginning quietly, the piece builds to a tremendously powerful falling section, with the voices inching slowly downwards. The full power of the 60-member group gave the climaxes of the piece a chilling force, but the choir was also able to dial back their volume and sing the softer sections with haunting beauty.

The penultimate work, Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse Devo, was quite different from many of the pieces on the program, with a more quietly expressive character and unadorned, homophonic writing. Gentle, step-wise melodies led into a wide, spacious climax, creating a large space of sound that felt natural and unforced, much in contrast to the other, more yearning and emotionally propulsive works on the program.

The last piece, Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria, was written in 1964, many years after the other works. Originally composed for a firemen’s choir, it was re-worked for mixed choir and has found a large audience worldwide. Using text primarily from the “Hail Mary” prayer, the piece alternates between chant-like melodies from the men and more expressive sections sung by the entire choir. Built on a few simple and catchy melodic motives, the piece works up to a very satisfying conclusion, combining the chant-like and more expressive sections. It’s easy to see why this piece has been popular, and the Concert Choir gave it a passionate reading, rendering the emotional and narrative structure of the piece clearly and directly. Ending at a point of maximum power and expression, the audience quickly rose to their feet and appreciatively applauded both the choir and Wells.