Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Engaging with Brahms’s Requiem

CONSIDERED one of Brahms’s most significant works, and one of the great choral masterpieces, Ein Deutches Requiem is a deeply moving piece.

Brahms, A German Requiem
South Chiltern Choral Society
The Great Hall, University of Reading
Sunday, March 20

CONSIDERED one of Brahms’s most significant works, and one of the great choral masterpieces, Ein Deutches Requiem is a deeply moving piece. Completed in 1869, it is thought to have been inspired by the death of the composer’s mother.

This was a performance of the London version for choir and piano duet — so called as it was first performed in this arrangement at the London premiere in 1871.

Brahms had not merely made a piano reduction of the orchestral score, but had altered the writing to bring out the piano colour.

So what we missed in the rich orchestration was gained by hearing better the brilliant choral effects often doubled in the full version.

Pianists Thomas Graff and Adrian Westley, the choir’s regular accompanist, joined the two soloists on stage with the 80-strong choir.

The requiem is written in seven movements with a formal “arch” structure in mind — each movement sharing musical material with its opposite number, and the fourth being the central character piece.

The first section opens with a soft introduction, “Selig sind” (“blessed are they”), which is subtly revisited in the seventh. The choir came in quietly and gently, achieving a good balance across the voices despite a shortage of tenors and basses. The diction was excellent and we could hear every word of the original German.

Movements two and six, by contrast, are grand and epic with march-like sections. Conducted with authority and clarity by Paul Burke, the choir demonstrated that they are equally at home in rhythmic as well as in quieter lyrical passages.

The sopranos in particular dealt well with the complex rhythms in the second movement and the high notes were well executed.

There was a good strong sound from the choir in the sixth — some of the best singing of the evening — matched by the rhythmic, almost heroic playing by the piano duet. Exciting stuff!

The third and fifth movements feature the two soloists, and they were superb.

The strong, rich tones of baritone Malachy Frame in the third were supported by good strong entries by the choir, and the fugue brought the movement to a resounding ending. This was balanced by Nia Coleman’s very beautiful and well-controlled soprano solo in the fifth.

I would have preferred to have heard the hour-long work without a break. The interval, for me, broke the arch structure. But this was an engaging performance, and congratulations to the musical director for a great achievement.

Review: Mandy Beard



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