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Masterful performance of ‘A German Requiem’

Soprano Rachel Mink.. a crystal-clear voice. Photo: Peter Hislop.

Music / “A German Requiem”, National Capital Orchestra and Canberra Choral Society. At Llewellyn Hall, ANU, July 24. Reviewed by CLINTON WHITE.

DESPITE its decade-long gestation, unusual construction. multiple revisions and early controversies, Johannes Brahms’ “Ein Deutsches Requiem” (“A German Requiem”) has stood the test of time and remains one of the most popular choral works in the catalogue, especially from the Romantic music period.

This performance, by the National Capital Orchestra and the Canberra Choral Society, not only drew on that popularity, but respected Brahms’ pen mightily.

After a slightly shaky start, in which the horns and lower strings struggled to find the right balance and volume (it was pianissimo – or very soft), the whole ensemble soon settled into a
masterful performance under the direction of conductor, Leonard Weiss.

The much-awarded Weiss has been back in Australia for almost a year, after a year in the US studying with celebrated conductor, Marin Alsop.

Happily, Weiss has not lost his fluid conducting style, but it has become much more nuanced, expressive and subtle. He now has an almost minimalist style, and yet there is no mistaking what he asks of the orchestra. Of note in this performance was his control of orchestral dynamics, keeping excellent balance within the orchestra and never once allowing the orchestra to overpower the choir.

It was particularly lovely to watch his left hand conducting the choir. His calm gestures flowed with the music while his baton-wielding right hand maintained the time and tempo. He gently encouraged the sopranos to their highest notes and gave authoritative entry and cut-off cues to individual sections and the whole choir.

Chorus master, Dan Walker, had prepared the choir superbly, achieving lovely tone and balance and silky-smooth dynamics. The 4th movement chorus, “How lovely are your dwellings” stood out for its beautiful, flowing lyricism.

Bass-baritone Andrew Fysh performs as Leonard Weiss conducts. Photo: Peter Hislop.

Although the two soloists don’t have much work in this piece, we Canberrans are very lucky that we have such a depth of talent on which to draw. Soprano, Rachel Mink, and bass-baritone, Andrew Fysh, had stepped in almost at the last minute to replace the intended international artists.

Fysh has a very fine voice, but, quite uncharacteristically, in the first of his two solos, “Lord, teach me”, his projection did not carry so well over the orchestra. His second solo, “For we have no permanent home here”, was much better with his clear and resonant voice easily making it up into the audience.

Almost sadly, there is only one solo for the soprano, but Rachel Mink’s crystal-clear voice had “You are sorrowful now” floating effortlessly above the orchestra, and the audience, in beautifully-controlled, melodious tones.

“A German Requiem” is a quite long work – almost an hour – but this performance held its audience in a state of bliss from beginning to end. Its excellence was duly rewarded with long and sustained applause.

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