Brahms Requiem 16 March 2013

Requiem imageFrom contemporaries like Wagner (‘no German Requiems for me!’) and Tchaikovsky (‘Brahms cannot exult’) to recent composers such as Benjamin Britten, who frequently spoke disparagingly of him,

Brahms’s position as one of the great composers has often been disputed – an American music critic once advising audiences: “Exit in case of Brahms!”  Even a noted Brahms authority such as Jan Swafford, author of an excellent biography of the composer, wrote that, in spite of its magnificence and beauty, ‘sameness of tone is the abiding problem of the Requiem’.                      

One is tempted to think that had any of the above been present in St Peter’s Cathedral last Saturday to hear the outstanding performance that was given of Ein deutsches Requiem, they might well have revised their opinions.  One of the finest works in the choral repertoire, the Requiem demands the greatest concentration and skill from everyone taking part, and on Saturday soloists, orchestra, choir and conductor all rose magnificently to the occasion.  It was clear that the work meant a very great deal to all those involved, and this was communicated to the audience from the very start.

The opening movement was taken at a slightly faster tempo than is sometimes heard – in accordance with what is known of nineteenth-century performing practice in slow movements – with the result that the emphasis in the text upon ‘sorrow’ was superseded by a sense not only of ‘comfort’ but of ‘joy’.  There was never an impression, as is present in some famous recordings, that the opening pulse of the music represents in some way an anticipation of the funeral march which does indeed begin the second movement.  The positive and almost optimistic emotions conveyed in this movement were to be echoed later in several other sections, giving a satisfactory wholeness to the performance. 

The sombre opening theme of the second movement had overwhelming power in its chilling fortissimo repetitions, where the intensity of the Choir’s delivery matched the dramatic playing of the orchestra.  The three great pivotal changes in movements two, three and six (‘Aber des Herrn Wort’, ‘Ich hoffe auf dich’ and ‘Herr, du bist würdig’) were all accomplished with the greatest accuracy and conviction, each in their turn leading to the exultant second half of each of these three sections.  There was never any sense here of the dry academicism that Brahms has sometimes been accused of, notably in movement three, the music always being carried forward on a tide of  irresistible exhilaration.  And the conductor’s thrillingly fast tempo for ‘Denn es wird die Posaune schallen’ inspired both orchestra and choir to a virtuosic delivery of the music that was most exciting.

The more intimate movements, four and five, were given affecting performances.  In the second of these, ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’, the conductor did not follow the common practice of reducing to a virtual murmur the choir’s responses to the solo soprano melody, rather bringing them forward to a level of almost equal importance, so that the meaningfulness of the text was underlined.  Sarah Power’s singing of this movement was particularly beautiful, enhanced – if one may say so – by the touching expressiveness of her lovely face.  With a baritone soloist of equal distinction in Alan Fairs, who gave a highly dramatic interpretation of the texts he sang, in a voice of great power, this EPC concert was again notable for its outstanding soloists.

Richard Studt led the excellent players of The Sinfonietta with the skill and passionate intensity which always characterises his playing, with the result that the orchestral texture of the Requiem was distinguished by many felicities of phrasing, the strings being particularly outstanding.  And the Choir?  One can only have the greatest admiration for the alternating delicacy, power and beauty of tone exhibited throughout the entire performance of this most demanding of works.  Pitch was immaculate, the diction absolutely clear, the pronunciation of Luther’s magnificent German texts exemplary.  Although every section of the Choir sang superbly, perhaps special mention can be made of the sopranos, who not only rose to every challenge faultlessly but sang with a radiance that few large choirs anywhere could match. 

One has almost come to take for granted the excellence with which the Philharmonic’s Director of Music prepares the Choir for its performances, but this evening was notable in addition for his  extraordinarily fresh, varied and dramatic intepretation of a work that is sometimes seen – and heard – as being rather stolid.  Here, all was beauty, drama and excitement, and one can have little doubt that Brahms himself would have been delighted by the performance.  ‘Such a man, such a great soul – yet he believes in nothing!’ was his great friend Dvořák’s anguished comment on the elder composer.  Yet even if works such as the Requiem, or the Vier ernste Gesänge, written at the end of his life, face the prospect of death without the traditional consolations of the Christian faith, Brahms’s music still offers so much in the way of serene acceptance of the mystery of life and its inevitable end.  It is surely significant that in the last of the ‘Four Serious Songs’, Brahms should have decided to set St Paul’s famous words commending faith, hope and love – with love being, of course, ‘the greatest of these’.

The concert on Saturday began, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, given a dramatic and exciting performance.  Then came ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ from Messiah, a piece that was included at the first performance of Ein deutsches Requiem in Bremen Cathedral.  It was exquisitely sung by Sarah Power, accompanied with great sensitivity by a handful of strings and continuo.  Fittingly, the concert then moved directly, with no interval, to the first movement of the Requiem.

Music-making of the excellence of Saturday’s concert deserved to have had Exeter music-lovers queuing at the west door of the Cathedral for the last remaining seats in the side aisles.  As it was, the audience which did attend enjoyed as fine a performance of Brahms’s masterpiece as we are ever likely to hear. 

Sarah Power soprano
Alan Fairs baritone
The Sinfonietta, leader Richard Studt

Conductor Andrew Millington

Exeter Cathedral

Paul Teal


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