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Human Requiem music review (Adelaide Festival)

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Brahms composed his German Requiem between 1865 and 1868. His longest composition, with text not in the requiem’s traditional Latin but derived from the German Luther Bible, its conception is humanist rather than religious, the libretto – written by Brahms himself – a meditation not on Christian redemption but on mortality and suffering, consolation and transcendence. Brahms told a colleague he would have happily called the work Ein Menschliches RequiemA Human Requiem.

Famed choral ensemble Rundfunkchor Berlin has, in their language, ‘broadened’ Brahms’s requiem, working with director Jochen Sandig (co-founder of Radialsystem V) and his partner, the choreographer Sasha Waltz, to present a semi-staged version that sees the choristers moving among the audience. Dressed plainly, ‘they’ are indistinguishable from ‘us’ except when their mouths open to sing, or they begin to enact each of the seven movement’s varied choreographic physicalisations. At times, such as when the performers simply stand and deliver where they are or the space is plunged into near-darkness, the work feels like nothing more than an unusually immersive concert experience. At other times, though, it is revelatory.

As the singers move slowly through the space, they occasionally pause to embrace one of us or pat us on the arm.

We are asked to remove our shoes before entering the cavernous space. In the centre is a wooden construction around which we line up to fold origami cups, filling them with mint-flavoured water. In one corner of the space is a grand piano, in another a set of bleachers covered in rice. The lights dim and the choristers, embedded all around us, sing the hushed opening lines – ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen’ (‘Blessed are those who bear suffering’) – as conductor Gijs Leenaars holds it all together from one side of the room. As the singers move slowly through the space, their faces sometimes impassive and sometimes smiling, they occasionally pause to embrace one of us or pat us on the arm. At various times they will gently coax us into different parts of the space or hand us cushions to sit on.

At the piano – shortly, in an image of Sisyphean struggle, to be dragged on ropes into the centre of the space – Philip Mayers and Angela Gassenhuber execute a new fourhanded transcription of Brahms’ exquisite, profoundly expressive music with vim. Picked out by a spotlight, baritone Konrad Jarnot gives a commanding ‘Herr, lehre doch mich’ (‘God, do teach me’) from within the crowd. He will later make a dramatic appearance on an upper level but for now gathers his fellow choristers around the piano in a seething, worshipful huddle.

Soprano Christina Gansch, dressed in a full-length white dress, sings ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ (‘You now have sadness’) while dangling from a rope-and-board swing, a vision of innocent abandon that presages the arrival of a group of children who unfurl a white carpet. From one end a brilliant white light fills the space, the choristers rushing towards it but stopping short, pulled first one way and then the other by the crosscurrents of life and death.

While Rundfunkchor’s musicianship is exemplary, and would more than pass in any of the concert halls the work seeks to transcend, it’s the dissolving of the division between audience and artist – amplifying choral singing’s democratic nature and its deep physicality – that makes Human Requiem such a memorable and, ultimately, moving experience.

At Ridley Centre, Adelaide Showground until March 18

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