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

Jean-Sébastien Vallée leading the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Brahms’ ‘A German Requiem’ at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church.

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.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s new artistic director, Jean-Sébastien Vallée, conducting Brahms’ ‘A German Requiem.’

There was a secret sauce: the Yorkminster Casavant organ, which, as played by Matthew Larkin, did a good deal of filling in and shoring up, with results that could frequently be felt as shaking in the pews. It is odd that the Linckelmann reduction does not call for an organ, given that the instrument is an ad libitum option in the original score. Vallée chose wisely by including this booster. Nor was it a bad idea to add four violins and a viola to the Linckelmann’s minimal squad of a string quintet, single winds, and timpani.

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.

Baritone Brett Polegato

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.

At about 75 minutes, Ein deutsches Requiem is well suited to COVID-era performance. This concert nevertheless had a starter, The Chariot Jubilee, an extrovert fantasy of 1919 on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” by Canadian-born Nathaniel Dett in an arrangement by Jason Max Ferdinand. Sills started this with a radiant solo rendition of the spiritual and projected joyously elsewhere. With its rich harmonies and imaginative treatment of voices and instruments, this 15-minute cantata could work in many contexts, especially when performed with such enthusiasm. Concentrating on maintaining a stable pace in Brahms, Vallée seemed freer in Dett with his gestures and sing-along facial cues.

The 220 present in a church that seats more than a thousand cheered mightily after the Brahms. That resonance works both ways. Ontario protocols now permit full attendance in sports and performance venues — a change in policy perhaps not coincidentally announced shortly before the final home stand of the Toronto Blue Jays. The TMC reasoned that ticketholders who expected a distanced configuration were entitled to get what they paid for.

There was a live livestream, available through Nov. 7. At this point, it is the duty of all good critics to assert the superiority of the live experience. There are, however, complications. Witnessing a concert from the rear balcony of Yorkminster Park Baptist Church is a little like watching a goal-line drive in a football game from the upper rows of the opposite end zone. The livestream brings you a better sense of what the conductor is asking for and, arguably, a clearer audio perspective on what he or she gets in return.

Soprano Jonelle Sills

At home, there is no need to mask up. Printed programs, normally a plus for live listening, have been banished, to the obvious frustration of anyone interested in the words being sung. Yes, texts are available online, but who has the chutzpah to stare at a cellphone during the performance? Score one for the webcast.

The concert was titled “Coming to Carry Me Home,” a phrase drawn, not quite accurately, from the words of the spiritual on which Dett’s piece was based. In spoken remarks, Vallée reasoned that both works on the program sought a spiritual homecoming. Fair enough. The program annotator made a valid point about the hard times we have all been through. She also saw fit to lecture us about the “pressing need for racial justice” and attribute the wider renown of Brahms (as compared to Dett) to “art music’s historic and ongoing privileging of white European composers.” This is the kind of topical noise that Brahms and Dett sought to overcome with music of universal value.

Those curious about the Linckelmann reduction can consult a performance led by Vallée in February at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul in Montreal, where he is director of choirs. To my ears he managed even more with even less — a choir of 24 and the prescribed complement of 11 instruments. Plus organ!