The Williams College Concert Choir and Orchestra’s performances of Beethoven’s Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt and Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der heiligen Schrift resonated throughout Thompson Memorial Chapel last weekend. Conducted by Chaz Lee ’11 and choir director Brad Wells, respectively, the two pieces combined the talents of the choir and orchestra to complement each other sublimely, providing a contrast that accentuated each work’s individual qualities.
Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (“Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage”) is a musical interpretation of Johan Wolfgang van Goethe’s eponymous poems. The piece conjured Goethe’s imagery perfectly. Written in D major, it opened with a serene, rather minimalistic passage evoking the smooth and ominous quietude of Goethe’s calm sea. In contrast to the usual portrayal of serenely still water, Beethoven layers a disquieting emotion, the disconcertment a sailor of stranded in a placid sea, by lethargically prolonging the opening with no end in sight.
The perturbing stillness was then quickly punctuated by joyous bursts from the choir. These intervals became increasingly frequent and culminated in a final triumphant passage as the ship in the narrative gets underway. The Concert Choir handled the necessary dynamic transitions beautifully. Its subdued passages quietly recalled an eerie Morton Feldman-esque minimalistic serenity, while its boisterous passages were delivered with Aeolian force. Lee’s dynamism guided the choir through its disparate passages; at times, he seemed as motionless as the sea he sought to depict, only to flamboyantly launch into frenzied motion, as if he himself were the sails of a ship.
Brahms composed Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der heiligen Schrift (“A German Requiem, to words of the Holy Scripture”) from 1865-68, probably in memory of both his mother and Robert Schumann. The piece is notable for eschewing the libretto of the traditional Roman Catholic requiem mass – Brahms assembled the text of his piece himself by drawing from the Luther Bible. Traditional requiems open with prayers for the dead; Brahms’ requiem opens with a celebration of the living. Indeed, Brahms explicitly refused to refer to the “redeeming death of the Lord,” and stated that he would readily dub the piece a “human requiem.”
Both the music and text of the requiem followed a cyclic trajectory over its seven movements. After the low opening tonic F, the chorus immediately introduced the ascending F, A, B-flat motif that permeated the rest of the work. This opening was rather muted – the chorus barely audible over the string section – and foreshadowed the subtlety that defined the first movement. Brahms soon changed key and crescendos slightly, which seemed to signify transition into a more dynamic passage. But the hinting was for naught, as Brahms soon reiterated the opening passage. Throughout the first movement, Brahms repudiated any hints of rapid progression or transition. Although the theme artfully progressed, there were no radical shifts akin to those found in the opening movements of Mozart’s requiem.
The second movement presented a dramatic shift in tone, opening ominously in a minor, triple-time march. After two iterations of the initial theme, the piece was marked by a powerful crescendo. As with the Beethoven, the choir handled these dynamic shifts with incredible finesse. This becomes particularly apparent with the introduction of a subdued major passage, which accentuated the energy of the preceding crescendo.
The third movement opened with a bass baritone solo, whose somber passages were echoed by the choir. Soloist Keith Kibler, a studio voice instructor, performed spectacularly. He struck an exceptionally nuanced balance between his own line and that of the choir, a feat that became increasingly delicate and intricate as the movement progressed. This balance was particularly evident in the homophonic crescendo marking the triumphant conclusion of the movement.
At times, the fifth movement felt somewhat of an insipid extension of the fourth. The interlude of the previous movement seemed to promise subsequent change, but the fifth movement did not deliver. Although the movement’s soprano solo nicely complemented the fourth movement’s bass baritone solo, soloist and voice instructor Kerry Ryer-Parke’s aria was not sufficiently distinguished from the choral passages.
The darker sixth movement brought welcome change. But unlike the consistently ominous second movement, Brahms’ intermingling of major and minor passages did not create that same impenetrable air of foreboding. The frequent harmonic and structural changes of the sixth movement required impressively precise orchestral and choral pairing. The movement concluded on a forceful Handelian fugue, recalling the choir’s energetic performance in the second movement.
The final movement felt considerably more subdued, echoing the subtlety of the introduction. In lieu of ending on the powerful fugue of the sixth movement, the piece concluded on a note of resignation. The first movement began with the line “Blessed are they that mourn,” whereas the seventh concluded on “Blessed are the dead,” reprising the F major motif of the first. The presence of the seventh movement gradually diminished until the piece ephemerally ended on the exact note where it began: a pianissimo deliverance of the word “blessed.”