The performance Sunday night of Brahms' German Requiem by the Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society demonstrated conclusively that a church is not always the most auspicious setting for a concert of church music. Despite some extraordinary and exciting effects which the circumstances allowed, or perhaps dictated, the finished product was far removed from both the spirit and the letter of the original work.
For this work, notwithstanding all the criticism of Brahms' orchestral form as too thick or unimaginative, needs an orchestra for many reasons, as the substitution of an organ, as in Sunday's performance, made painfully clear. The instrumental effects, such as pizzicato, used as a foil to the voices; the tonal texture of different groups of instruments; and the all-pervading crescendo and diminuendo which is so essential--all these are impossible for an organist.
The efforts of the organist, James Armstrong, to surmount these difficulties while playing an extremely difficult part, were in some cases, notably the tremendous crescendo in "Behold, all flesh," very successful. However, his choice of stops was not always happy, particularly in the use of reeds in quieter sections. But the main defects were entirely beyond his control: the sense of release which is so integral to the form of the work is impossible except as indicated in the original scoring.
As a concession to the inadequacies of the organ, timpani were used with powerful and at times terrifying effect. But the apocalyptic climaxes were achieved at the price of turning the second chorus into a kettledrum concerto, and the theatricality of this novel compromise did not blend well with the rest of the performance.
The chorus showed signs of the strain of singing against the organ, and the big sections were loud without being rich and full. The quieter sections were much better; the pianissimos of the opening chorus proved far more dramatic than the fortissimos of the brawling final chorus.
The soloists, two of the chorus' old reliables, also had a rough evening. Thomas Beveridge was the victim of miscasting: his voice is too light for this particular part. O'Brien Nicholas struggled with the bewildering problem of keeping on pitch under the doubtful guidance of an organ. Her intonation difficulties were redeemed by the charm of an incredibly lovely voice which seemed to take on a personality of its own amid the weird atonality.
In spite of all the mishaps which marred the performance (at one point the entire performance had to stop and start some measures back), there was also a great deal of beauty. The Requiem is long, even with two movements omitted, and often repetitive. Professor Woodworth did not allow it to fall asleep. He used the chorus in such a way as to provide the greatest possible contrast to the organ; and even if the chorus has sometimes sounded more polished, its performance was, under the conditions, nothing to be ashamed of.
The only complaint is that such an experienced group with a traditionally high standard ought not to attempt such a large work on the side, so to speak, while it was preparing for the Boulanger concert. The Brahms Requiem deserves the full attention of any chorus. It also deserves an orchestra.