Scaled Back, Brahms’ ‘German Requiem’ Still Makes Its Grand Effect

Arthur Kaptainis, Classical Voice North America
November 5, 2021

TORONTO — Any performance of Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem counts as an occasion, but the concert given on Nov. 2 by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir was special in a few ways. It represented both the return of this venerable society (founded in 1894) to live public performing after an enforced sabbatical of 20 months and the first appearance as artistic director of Jean-Sébastien Vallée, a conductor who already has high-profile responsibilities in Montreal, including the choral-conducting professorship at McGill University.

The evening also offered an opportunity to hear the “chamber version” of this masterpiece created in 2010 by the German flutist Joachim Linckelmann in the interests of making the music accessible to organizations without the means to assemble a full orchestra and three-digit cohort of singers. I use quotation marks because the sonic reality in Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, the vast midtown sanctuary that serves as the TMC home base, was anything but chamber-like. With certain particulars attended to, and given an appropriate setting, the Linckelmann reduction has the potential to democratize the Requiem without sacrificing its grandeur.

What particulars? The resonance of the church was essential to the effect. A nicely focused cello or oboe (members, like the other fine players, of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra) goes a long way in such a space. Soloists who sing boldly and with vivid emotion, like baritone Brett Polegato and soprano Jonelle Sills, are certainly helpful.

Of course the ingredient that matters most in the Requiem is the chorus, here numbering 91, including a professional core of 19. Even had they not produced velvety pianissimos and hearty climaxes, these singers would merit praise for performing masked and distanced. Sopranos and altos were positioned on two levels in the transepts. Men (as in many choral societies, a shade less full-bodied than the women) were more cohesively assembled at the back of the chancel.

Vallée, sans baton, led a stately performance with mostly symmetrical gestures. I prefer faster tempos. It is likely that the Yorkminster acoustics imposed a speed limit, especially in fugal passages. Still, the music had expressive contour, and the big moments (such as the forte reprises of “Denn alles Fleisch”) made their proper effect.

Read the full review here.