Rediscovering the Familiar: the Rundfunkchor Berlin at Radial Systems V

GermanyGermany Brahms: Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey (director), Malin Christensson (soprano), Konrad Jarnot (baritone), Angela Gassenhuber and Philip Mayers (piano), Jochen Sandig (concept and direction) Sasha Waltz & Guests (dramaturgie), Radial Systems V, Berlin, 26.03.15 (HR)


Johannes Brahms: A German Requiem, Op. 45

Johannes Brahms’s A German Requiem may be part of the standard concert repertoire, but the Rundfunkchor Berlin’s performance of it on Thursday night at Radial Systems V was anything but standard. Before entering the concert space, the audience were asked to remove their shoes. They were then given the freedom to sit or stand wherever they pleased. Instead of a stage, audience members sat around and between the performers.

 But Brahms’s A German Requiem is hardly a ‘standard’ requiem mass. Rather than setting the conventional Latin text, Brahms assembled his own, using fifteen passages from Martin Luther’s translation of the bible. His texts put the emphasis less on death but on consolation for the living. Most astonishing is the avoidance of the notion of redemption through Christ, who is not mentioned at all. Conducted by Simon Halsey and with choreography by the dance company Sasha Waltz & Guests, Rundfunkchor Berlin presented a new “physicalisation” of Brahms’s A German Requiem.

 This staging unfortunately made the presence of a full orchestra impossible, which was replaced by an arrangement for piano duet. The piano sounded dry and percussive, especially in comparison to Brahms’s rich orchestration. Nevertheless, this handicap was not too problematic. This performance put the choir at its centre, so the lack of an orchestra was quickly accepted.

 But it was not only the choir that was central, but the audience too – sometimes literally. In the sixth movement, for example, the choir situated themselves around the edges of the concert space, comfortingly enclosing the audience inside. Less convincing, however, was the fourth movement, when the audience were crammed into the edges of the hall to give space for choir members to sit on swings and rock to and fro. Not only did the swings have no discernible purpose, but there was also now a divide between choir members sitting on the swings and the audience watching them at a distance.

 The most effective moments were when the physical boundary between performer and audience was blurred. This worked especially well in the first and third movements. The choir were interspersed between the audience and freely wondered amongst them. You could be only a few feet from a choir member at some points, providing an extraordinary opportunity to hear their individual voice. Listeners were within and inside the sound, making them as fundamental to the performance as the singers.

 The Rundfunkchor Berlin’s performance of A German Requiem might be one of the most welcoming performances of a classical work. The audience were not expected to passively concentrate and listen, but were instead invited to take part in the performance. The music was brought to them.


Hazel Rowland


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