Above: Soprano soloist, Emma Pearson. Featured Image : Guest conductor, Simon Halsey.

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs began their 2019 season with an exploration of the inimitable expressive voice of Johannes Brahms. Without orchestra, the scope of this performance consisted of selected lieder and the composer’s Ein Deutsches Requiem for solo voices or choir and piano alone.

Central to this exploration was the extremely fresh delivery of the composer’s requiem, a popular and searching choral work, skilfully setting German text from the Lutheran Bible. Choral timbres and
atmospheres were expertly manipulated by guest conductor Simon Halsey as instrumental colour and texture were reduced to piano duet for accompaniment. This was a flashback to the London premiere of the work in 1871 London, in the drawing room of Kate Loder’s house.                        

This different accompaniment succeeded, however much those familiar with the requiem could have missed the sound of sustained string and wind instruments. The choir elaborated Brahms’ setting over a supple and subtly crafted arrangement for piano duet with origins in Brahms’ own marketable arrangement for domestic use.

Also in this evening of intimate scope, the superb piano colour underpinning a selection of some of Brahms’ most well known and dramatic songs  a were a very sufficient sounding board for the vocalists, and indicated the success of playing with the choral trajectories to come.

True intimacy requires constant and clean instrumental contribution to allow voices to speak to us with keen conversationalor dramatic  clarity. We were supplied such pianistic control with varied soundscapes by sympathetic accompanists Marlowe Fitzpatrick and Claire Howard Race.

The clear and finely sculptured nature of Brahms’ approach to  complex and serious song texts was beautifully explored in this concert’s first half. Soprano Emma Pearson and baritone Sam Roberts-Smith gifted us some weighty miniature gems, ably supported by well-characterised piano tapestries at the hands of Fitzpatrick and Howard Race.

Standout amongst these seven lieder were Emma Pearson’s even and direct recreation of Wiegenlied and Am der Kirchhofe. The latter especially showed impressive focus and intesity in communication of gloomy sentiment. Sam Roberts-Smith’s trajectory in Verzagen (Despair) was likewise one with incredible depth across the small number of lines of text as it blended with the wave-like piano figures.

Above: Baritone soloist Sam Roberts-Smith

This concert’s intimate atmosphere and intimate reading of Brahms’ requiem benefitted from the superb City Recital Hall acoustic. At times perhaps the piano was overwhelmed by the Sydney Philharmonia Choir with Symphony Chorus, significantly more in number than the thirty or so choristers in Kate Loder’s 1871 premiere with piano.

However in this venue’s acoustic the piano duet figures still emerged continually from underneath the blanket of choral sound to provide a constant flow of keyboard sound.

This choir’s interpretation was anything but loud and heavy though. Conductor Simon Halsey achieved quite thrilling sonorous eruptions in joyful climaxes whilst maintaining great momentum and lightness in other passages.

This treasured work’s  wide range of colour  was preserved in the performance of this arrangement. These hues were rediscovered and rendered with careful demarcation of vibrato versus cleaner tone. Halsey’s address to the audience prior to the work was a fine and entertaining explanation of the interpretation. His knowledge of the composer and choral music making was a gift in this exchange to choral concert veterans and eager new audience members alike.

The entire concert began with an engaging performance of Brahms’ Intermezzo in B minor Op 119 No 1. This was both a pleasant preamble to the vocal music and an excellent multilayered example of Brahmsian utterance. The performance was full of miniature shifts in gesture in the course of its steady-arrow direction to the conclusion.

This concert was an effective change of pace from large choral concerts with orchestra. These events are soon to come however from the various Sydney Philharmonia Choirs in what promises to be a vibrant and varied year.