Peace and comfort is the central message Brahms sought to convey through his "German Requiem," and the Cathedral Choral Society, led by Richard W. Dirksen, presented a particularly serene reading of the piece at the Washington Cathedral yesterday, a performance in which patience and hope triumphed over both joy and sorrow.
To achieve this, Dirksen chose quick tempos that did not allow the singers to wallow in sentiment. The lyricism was there, and the sopranos, in particular, sang the long lines of the last movement with glorious sweetness. But some of the drama, particularly in the second movement, "Behold all flesh is as grass," was sacrificed in all this calmness. This was a surprise because Dirksen is a consummate dramatist and has been known to whip up tremendous storms of passion on the slightest provocation. Here, he might have encouraged the trombones to greater bellows of foreboding and the timpani to more thundering insistence, but instead he slowed up just as he reached the movement's climax and registered relaxation instead of intensity.
The chorus sang responsively and with a sense of ensemble with the instruments. The tenor and bass sections were not as strong as the other sections in exposed passages, but the total choral sound was very good.
Soprano Laura English-Robinson had the job of delivering the central message of peace, a message that opens with a soaring ascending line. This music requires a voice that has both depth and stability, and English-Robinson, a fine singer, simply had too much vibrato to sound like the comforting mother the text implies.
The baritone solos were handled with dignity and conviction by Richard S. Dirksen, the conductor's son.
The concert began with a nice performance of the Brahms "Academic Festival" Overture, performed in celebration of the 75th anniversary of St. Albans school.