Sunday, December 23, 2012

Israeli Vocal Ensemble sings Brahms' Requiem

The Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s first concert of the 2012-2013 “Vocal Experience” series was a performance of Brahms’ “German Requiem”. This writer attended the performance at the Tel Aviv Museum December 15th 2012. The concert was conducted by the ensemble’s musical director Yuval Benozer; soloists were soprano Hadas Faran-Asia and baritone Yair Polishook. Replacing the orchestra, we heard duo-pianists Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony playing a version for two pianos as arranged by August Grüters, a contemporary of Brahms.

Having considered the concept for a time, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) began work on the Requiem at age 33, completing it the following year with the exception of the fifth movement, which he added later in order to create complete balance in the work’s structure. The incomplete version was first performed in Bremen Cathedral in Easter of 1868. The complete version was heard a year later in Leipzig. Many scholars have spoken of the German Requiem as being a work in memory of the composer’s mother, who died in 1865.  By the same token, it might have been composed following the insanity and eventual death of Brahms’ great friend Robert Schumann. In any case, Brahms himself gave no indication as to whether the work was dedicated to the memory of any specific person or not. Having little to do with the Roman Catholic Mass, Brahms used the Lutheran Bible – from the Old- and New Testaments and the Apocrypha (Christian texts of uncertain authenticity). Much has been discussed (and argued) about the Brahms Requiem, with some even doubting its claim to being a Requiem. Brahms explained his omitting of both the Last Judgement and the conventional plea for mercy for the souls of the dead by insisting that the aim of the work was to comfort the living. The work is a paradigm of construction and balance, with the similar opening and closing movements enclosing the work, the lyrical fourth movement “How lovely are thy dwellings” the centerpiece, the solemnity of the first three movements balanced by the comfort of the last three, etc. Any intermission in a performance of the work would be disastrous to the effect of this structure as well as to the work’s emotional process.

The Israeli Vocal Ensemble was established by Yuval Benozer in 1993 and comprises professional singers. It has enjoyed glowing reviews, performing widely in Israel and further afield, also with other groups, with orchestras and guest conductors. The IVE performs the gamut of vocal works, from medieval repertoire through contemporary.  Its signature “sound” combines careful blending with focus on individual timbres, this fruity mix being especially well suited to the Romantic, rich coloring of Brahms’ music.

From the opening verse of the Requiem, the artists spelled out the work’s message in lush, flexible but serene tonings, with emphasis returning again and again to the words “selig” (blessed) and getröstet (comforted):
‘Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted.’ (Matthew 5:4)
Benozer produced the range of the Requiem’s moods in strong gestures and contrasts as in  the disturbingly stark  b minor funeral march of the second movement, the dramatic, powerful  of the sixth movement with its majestic fugue in which Brahms evokes a musical image of Jacob’s ladder, contrasted by the sublime, pastoral fourth movement in which brightness and goodness prevail.

Yair Polishook’s singing of the third movement brought out the profound, personal and contemplative meaning of a text that ponders the transience of human existence. Joined by the choir in the sixth movement, he did not soft-pedal on its drama and impact. Polishook’s vocal timbre has developed into a luxuriant mix of depth and brightness. His articulate reading into the text was  gripping and convincing, his German enunciation excellent.

Contrasting the third movement’s message of grief and doubt, soprano Hadas Faran-Asia’s solo of the fifth movement offered maternal consolation, her expansive voice confident, calm and dependable, her tranquil melodic line progressing slowly and with fine vocal color over the fast figurations of the pianos and delicately balanced with the choir.

Benozer’s direction of the work never lagged, his use of dynamic change never merely for the sake of color:  stronger colors, not just in dramatic moments, supported the work’s basis of belief as well as depicting Brahms’ joyful moments - a Brahmsian version of joy, where dark clouds seem never far away. Choir members were clearly well aware of the various aspects of the text and its key words; their German was clear and well pronounced. Contrapuntal sections were crisp and succinct, and there were moments where the IVE’s sound floated weightlessly through melodic lines to give expression to the Requiem’s sacred meaning and preoccupation with death.

For those audience members willing to free themselves from the timbres of Brahms’ woodwinds, horns, muted violins and percussion, the two-piano setting was more than rewarding. Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony worked hand-in-glove with Benozer and the singers, fashioning each fragile musical gesture with the utmost of sensitivity and preserving the work’s spiritual character.

The concert was a feast for the senses and to all who appreciate sacred music performed as intended.

No comments: