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WHAT’S IN A VERSION? Chorale tackles unconventional Brahms project

By Paul Horsley

Many musicians would give their E-string for a chance to resurrect Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms for an hour or two, just to ask them some burning questions that have been left to historical speculation. Wolfgang, did Salieri really poison you? Ludwig van, did you honestly intend the ridiculously fast tempos implied by your metronome markings?

If Brahms were alive, choral fans might ask about the four-hand piano version for Ein Deutsches Requiem: Did he create this alternative accompaniment “merely” for practical use, to show the piece around and generate interest? Or was it intended as a viable alternative to the full-orchestra version?

Granted, this piano version has gained some currency in recent years, but the recordings available have hardly been convincing enough to demonstrate its viability. That may be about to change. On October 30th and November 1st, Kansas Citians will have a chance to assess the issue for themselves, as one of the world’s great choirs and two local pianists present performances of Brahms’ controversial piano version.

Photos courtesy of Kansas City Chorale
Photo courtesy of Kansas City Chorale

And if the multiple Grammy Award-winning Kansas City Chorale’s performance is as good as I suspect it will be, the project could well become an international recording project (on the prestigious Chandos label that is responsible for most of the Chorale’s game-changing CDs) and even (dare one say it) alter the world’s view of this piece forever.

Yup, right here in Kansas City. And you have a chance to be a part of this, as the world-famous Chorale opens its 2016-2017 season with this bold project. The issue perhaps boils down to this: What do we really gain from performing a chamber-sized version of a piece that, in its magnificent full-orchestra rendition, has been acclaimed as a masterpiece of Western art for 150 years?

“What we gain is a degree of intimacy and immediacy,” said KC Chorale Artistic Director Charles Bruffy, who will perform the work with the choir that he has built to an international powerhouse and with pianists Kurt Knecht and Robert Pherigo. While the orchestral version is known for its massiveness, he said (Brahms’ premiere in 1868 included a choir of some 200 voices), a chorus of two dozen singers could not possibly compete with an 80-piece orchestra. Thus “proportionally, the piano sound is as big to a small choir as an orchestra is to a large one,” Charles said.

Kurt Knecht / Courtesy of the artist
Kurt Knecht / Courtesy of the artist

Kurt, a composer-pianist who has performed the four-hand Requiem before, said the listener can gain a deeper understanding of Brahms’ piece through the piano arrangement’s chamber-music aspect. The “intimate opportunities for individuals to interact” are similar to those in a string quartet, he said, where performers “retain their individual expression but still feel that they’re doing something together.”

The fact that Brahms penned the piano parts himself assures a certain quality of product, Charles added. This was, after all, one of the greatest composers for keyboard who ever lived: “That it is from his own hand makes it valid enough.” Moreover, this Requiem (unlike the operatic, “big-sanctuary” Verdi Requiem) “still has the sensibilities of a chapel,” Charles said, “even when it’s performed by full orchestra and big chorus.”

Robert Pherigo / Photo courtesy of the artist
Robert Pherigo / Photo courtesy of the artist

Indeed, Brahms was not a composer who put pen to paper for purely functional reasons, said Kurt (who has himself composed quite a bit of music for chorus), and the fact that the piano version exists at all, and that it was published, is a testament to its validity. “If you’re going through the creative work of making an arrangement, and making all of the creative choices that he had to make … you have to be able to invest creative energy into that.” (Brahms was notorious for destroying pieces he didn’t feel were up to his own standards.)

Whatever form the Requiem takes, Kurt said, it remains a piece that composers, performers and audiences will always value as a musical milestone. “Everything is perfectly put together. It’s lush and gorgeous and beautifully expressive: all of the things that we want our compositions to be. And the fugues are brilliant, never ponderous.”

Charles Bruffy / Photo courtesy of Kansas City Chorale
Charles Bruffy / Photo courtesy of Kansas City Chorale

As for the hopes of this project becoming a commercial recording, Charles emphasized that this has yet to be determined, but that it wouldn’t be the first edgy project he’s brought to the label. “Because of our successful recording history with Chandos, they have become more supportive of my, shall we say, less-than-mainstream ideas.”

KC Independent web marsalis

The KC Chorale performs the German Requiem on October 30th at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral and on November 1st at Asbury United Methodist Church.

For tickets and information go to kcchorale.org or call 816-235-6222. Also purchase the Chorale’s several Grammy-winning discs on its website or at amazon.com.

Photo at top: Jana Marie Photography

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).



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