Friday, 17 August 2018

Review: Benson Choral Society

Benson Choral Society | Dorchester Abbey | Saturday, March 24

THERE were only two items on the programme for this concert; a tragic overture followed by a German requiem sung in its original language. You might think from this bland description that the audience was in for a rather gloomy evening. You would be wrong! The programme attracted a large audience that clearly was better informed.

Brahms’s Tragic Overture was written to no particular programme or theme but to provide a contrast in mood compared with its sister creation, the Academic Festival Overture, written in the same year. It served well on this occasion as an appropriate curtain-raiser for Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), the composer’s longest choral work and arguably his most beautiful.

This requiem is unlike any other. It does not conform to the liturgy of the Latin Requiem Mass but uses wonderfully poetic extracts from the Lutheran Bible. It concerns itself more with comforting the living rather than pondering on the fate of the dead. The music fits the German texts ideally but excellent programme notes provided a useful English translation.

Brahms’s harmonies are rich and passionate but have a hidden trap for the unwary. He creates many gorgeous key-change sequences, some of which are given to the choir to perform momentarily unaccompanied. It is all too easy for a choir to adjust the pitch unintentionally in this process. When the orchestra rejoins the ensemble, the unfortunate effect is clear for all to hear. On these occasions the choir has to squirm back to the orchestra’s pitch and hope that no one notices. But we did.

In all other respects, the choir performed sensitively and robustly. Its tenor section is small in comparison with the other voice parts, but it can boast of having strong voices that acquitted themselves particularly well in the dominant passages Brahms provided for them.

Johnny Herford, baritone, joined the ensemble to sing the robust fourth movement, Herr, lehre doch mich (Lord, let me know mine end). He has a rich and powerful voice and clear diction, well suited to the rigours of Dorchester Abbey’s resonant acoustics. His soaring talents were put to effective use again in the sixth movement, Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende (For we have here no abiding city).

The fifth movement of the Requiem, Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (Ye now have sorrow) is arguably the most comforting and unworldly music that Brahms composed. Aoife Miskelly, soprano, delivered this ethereal masterpiece with clarity and tenderness, demonstrating enviable breath control and consistent purity of sound that was spellbinding.

Immaculate instrumental support was supplied, as usual, by the Elgar Orchestra. A few more strings squeezed in somewhere would have provided a better balance to offset the large brass contingent that the score demands. But the quality of sound was good and the woodwind fragments that weave their way in and out of this work were consistent and played sensitively.

A gloomy evening? Far from it. Beautiful food for the soul — with second helpings!

John Burleigh

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