Brahms German Requiem

Westminster Choir, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus, the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra and two soloists performed Brahms's German Requiem on Tuesday, conducted by Joe Miller.

Ein Deutsches Requiem (German Requiem) by Johannes Brahms has been performed so regularly that it’s easy to forget that it’s awfully hard. I’ve done this piece so I’m not unsympathetic to the difficulties — and there are many — that Brahms places on the human voice.

The sopranos and tenors are stretched to their limits by sustained high notes; the impracticalities of the German language don’t help either. Still, the men and women of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Westminster Choir did an outstanding job Tuesday night at the Gaillard Center. In fact, the chorus was the undisputed star: altos had a rich, easy tone and basses sang clear low notes with solid leaps. I hope Joe Miller, conductor of the concert and leader of the Westminster Choir, bows down to his tenors every day because they deserve it.

It’s repetitive to point out just how fantastic the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra is, but each performance is as good — if not better — than the one before it. The cellos and violas made a lovely, embracing sound in the first movement; the start of the funeral march was appropriately mournful.

Miller brought out the best in orchestra and chorus. It was refreshing to hear proper articulations, rolling triple meters, distinguishable diction and unforced choral tone. His conducting is fluid and effective and it confidently reflects the score.

It’s well known that music through Schubert does not incorporate continuous vibrato. Less well known is that continuous vibrato didn’t come into widespread use until the 1920s; thus Schumann, Liszt, Wagner — and, yes, Brahms — should be played and sung without vibrato if historically informed performance is the goal.

Period instruments of the time were different than their modern counterparts: oboes sounded darker; clarinetists were expected to use the indicated transposed instrument. Brahms was particularly fond of the peculiar timbre of stopped notes in natural horn. Valves weren’t invented to move quickly from key to key but to obviate crooks; players depressed the appropriate valve, held it, then used their hand and lips to change notes.

Orchestral placement also was different. Violins sat facing each other, double basses stood at the back of the orchestra and woodwinds and brass sat on elevated platforms. Choruses were placed in front of the orchestra, allowing them to be heard above heavy orchestrations.

Sadly, both Natalia Pavlova and Alexander Dobson weren’t in such good voice as a couple of nights ago when they sang wonderfully well. Pavlova had recurring intonation problems; plus, she sometimes phonates beneath the pitch then reaches up. The same brilliant, penetrating timbre that helped Dobson succeed in the performance of Zemlinsky’s “Lyric Symphony” on Saturday made him a poor choice for this work, which requires a warm, comforting sound. He also struggled with the upper register.

Truth is I’ll sit through the whole piece for the high A the sopranos sing at the end. Ladies, you made my evening: it soared. Maestro Miller did everyone — chorus, orchestra, himself and Brahms — proud.

Reviewer David Friddle has doctorates in organ and choral conducting and directs a professional chamber choir in Rochester, Minn.