Soloists shine in German Requiem
A Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and Vancouver Bach Choir production. Conducted by Bramwell Tovey. At the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday, December 3. Continues December 5
It must have seemed like a good idea to pair Johannes Brahms’s A German Requiem with Gustav Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, as the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra did on Saturday at the Orpheum, but just as it’s hard to imagine them being played in succession on the record player, they don’t make good companions in the theatre either.
Apart from being decidedly downbeat—in Mahler’s case, genuinely depressing—having them together on one program makes for a heavily Germanic course of events. In addition, they were hugely imbalanced in terms of length, the Brahms dwarfing the Mahler. (They’re both early works, incidentally.) It seems to have been obvious to the organizers that the Brahms is the superior work, quite aside from the fact that it’s the longest one he wrote, at more than an hour. But if they had to be program partners, the VSO at least got the order right: end with the Brahms and you tend to overlook its overwhelming dourness for its sublimity. End with the Mahler, and we might all go home and slit our wrists.
The Vancouver Bach Choir’s some 300 voices might seem a lot for the German Requiem, but not if you go by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with its 350. Actually, the Bach Choir and the VSO even surpassed the MTC; at least judging by the recording of the latter that I have, the local sopranos wiped the floor with the Utahans.
The program came with two solo singers, both of them superb: soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and baritone Hugh Russell. In the Mahler, Russell shone with his firm, beautifully placed notes and his undeniable emotional kinship with the text, and he was even better in the Brahms. As for Bayrakdarian, I’ve never heard her sing better—it made you wish there were more for her to do than the one section, the lovely fifth, “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (“Therefore you now have sorrow”). She truly made it her own.
The evening was slightly padded out, albeit only by the addition of a seven- or eight-minute piece to the Mahler. This was “Masquerade” by the VSO’s new British-born composer-in-residence, Edward Top.
The piece was better than its minor length might suggest. It’s a take on the surrealist artist James Ensor’s 1889 painting, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels. It lived up to its name, being just as phantasmagorical and grotesque as the work it’s based on, and just as funny.