Choral Arts excels with Brahms

March 23, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Besides being a great composer, Brahms was an extraordinarily generous and compassionate man. He also happened to be an agnostic and a devotee of pessimistic German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

This never failed to impress his friend, composer Antonin Dvorak, who once remarked: "Such a man, such a great soul -- and he doesn't believe in anything, he doesn't believe in anything!"

A listener could not help but share the Czech composer's bewilderment Saturday evening during a performance of Brahms' "Ein deutsches Requiem" ("A German Requiem") by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. One may have walked into Meyerhoff Hall with a troubled mind. But, after conductor Tom Hall's fine performance of the piece with the full chorus and orchestra of the society and the Towson University Chorale, one left feeling better.

Brahms may not have been a believer in the ordinary sense, but the music in his Requiem seems filled with the conviction that man needs and deserves consolation and the purpose to accomplish it.

That is all very well, but in many performances this masterpiece can sound stodgy and square. That the composer's great design was accomplished on this occasion says a great deal about Hall's intelligent and sensitive performance.

In the first movement, the balances of the strings against the warm choral sound were beautiful. The second movement, "Denn alles Fleisch" ("Then all Flesh is grass"), moved with an inexorable tread that made the explosion at the climax sound inevitable. The tremendous fugues in the third and sixth movements were powerfully and clearly articulated. The conductor elicited glowing playing from his orchestra and powerful, incisive singing from his carefully prepared choristers. Hall achieved a quality of rapture that never flagged.

The excellent soloists were baritone David Arnold and soprano Janice Chandler. Arnold's voice may betray some signs of wear, but his artistry remains untouched by age: He sang with genuine nobility and enormous concentration.

It's impossible to imagine a performance more poised and pure than that of Chandler. The manner in which this lovely, young woman movingly projects ethereal innocence, without a touch of affectation, is nothing less than a marvel.

Pub Date: 3/23/98

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