In the final concert of its first Philadelphia season, the Seraphic Fire choral group from Florida once again arrived with standard repertoire that wasn't more of the same. No matter how many times you've heard the Brahms German Requiem, what unfolded Thursday at St. Clement's Church was the still-novel, small-scale parlor version of the great choral work. Some 21 singers stood in for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (in the Eugene Ormandy recording), and four-hand piano replaced orchestra.
"In no way is this the budget version," said founder/director Patrick Dupré Quigley. Five small-scale German Requiem descendants came first, setting up a departure from much of what you thought you knew about the Brahms. Smart move, because the smaller-scale forces also dictate less lingering, nonorthodox tempos more characteristic of Brahms' time.
Normally contemplative passages took on more cogent shape. Absent was Mahlerian agony that has been imposed on Brahms in our own time. The runtish fourth movement, "How Lovely Is Your Dwelling" had a greater sense of incident under Quigley. Such virtues plus the cachet of soloist Tamara Wilson, recent winner of the prestigious Richard Tucker Award, added up to an extremely satisfying concert - even if there was a missed opportunity for something greater.
Let's backtrack to the non-Brahms first half: John Tavener's Song for Athene, a movement from the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil, an excerpt from Samuel Barber's Reincarnations, and Elizabeth Poston's simple, hymnlike Jesus Christ the Apple Tree were sung with clean, nearly vibrato-free sonority through which words emerged in a somewhat demure color that didn't so much reach out to listeners as invite them in. Philadelphia has fine choirs, but there's always room for singing with such personality.
But some of that was lost in the Brahms performance: It seemed to apologize for its own smallness with fortissimo singing that didn't go badly but that wasn't the optimum solution in St. Clement's lively acoustic. Quigley's sensitive attention to words heard in the group's 2011 Brahms recording was somewhat lost.
Soloists fared less well. Their singing was typical of what one hears in large-scale performances of the piece, with unrestrained vibrato that ricocheted amid the acoustic, so much that you really couldn't tell much about their voices, especially bass-baritone Dashon Burton. One can say soprano Wilson brought a more mezzo-ish color to the ethereal vocal lines - an approach more welcome in a concert-hall acoustic.