Album Review

Posted: Wednesday 11th October 2006
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Brahms: German Requiem (ein Deutsches Requiem) –

When searching through the abundant and ever-multiplying marketplace of classical music recordings, one’s interest is easily piqued by an offering that seems somewhat out of the ordinary.

The latest disc presented by the highly versatile and successful Vasari Singers, featuring Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem and Geistliches Lied Op. 30, arouses such curiosity before it has even reached the CD player.

Fascination here resides in the decision to record the requiem with Brahms’ own piano-duet reduction of the orchestra score. Considering that the Vasari Singers are a relatively small group that might struggle to cope with full-blown symphonic forces, it makes sense to travel down the piano accompaniment route for such a substantial work. Nevertheless, one might yet be inclined to question the validity of such an endeavour. In his booklet notes, David Bray explains that this arrangement places a greater emphasis on the composer’s skilful choral writing while removing the elements of an “endurance test” present in the original version.

There is certainly an element of ease about the Vasari Singers’ performance under the competent guidance of Jeremy Backhouse. Their sound production is always controlled and well-measured, never strained or forced when the music becomes excited. Most importantly, one can definitely sense a significant shift in attention towards the choir as the accompaniment seems to take more of a back seat, allowing the listener to focus on a wonderfully lucid choral performance. One is struck in the opening „Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” by the superb array of tonal complexion as the choir captures the emotions of this deeply profound work. This zealous understanding of Brahms’ writing never wavers, permeating all aspects of the rendition. All the vocal lines are audible, even in tutti passages, and are sung with equally outstanding sincerity. Similar qualities are also apparent in the Geistliches Lied Op. 30, provided as a short yet pleasant bonus track after the requiem.

Of course, the orchestral version of Brahms’ requiem (or, for that matter, of any large-scale choral work) tests the stamina not only of the performers but also, when recorded, of the speakers through which the music is heard. Even if one is fortunate enough to possess a lavish sound system, the sheer size and weight of such considerable instrumental and vocal forces can be simply overwhelming. These were, after all, initially intended to be heard in the church or concert hall as opposed to the living room. By employing a piano reduction of the orchestral score along with a small choral ensemble, thus creating what is effectively a “chamber requiem”, the work gains an extra ounce of clarity which, in the context of a recording, often translates into an enhanced listening experience (though sometimes at the expense of the sustained intensity provided by symphonic proportions).

Jeremy Filsell and Roderick Chadwick are extremely convincing at the keyboard, doing their utmost to provide a full range of orchestral colouring (very much in the Lisztian vein of pianism). The haunting poignancy at the start of Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras is especially atmospheric, creating an ideal ambience for the choir’s chilling entry. In stark contrast, the forceful tutti sections are played with sheer brilliance and pizzazz, none more so than the startling central passage that accompanies verses 54b-55 of 1 Corinthians 15 in Denn wir haben keine bleibende Statt. Though occasionally one might wish that the pianists exercise a greater degree of artistic licence with regards to rubato, this is not a pervasive shortcoming, and on the whole the playing is quite enthralling.

Reference must be made to the soloists, both of whom are admirable in their delivery of Brahms’ sumptuous vocal lines. Baritone Colin Campbell is the more persuasive of the two. His silky-smooth voice and focused vibrato are exceedingly easy on the ear, and he performs his solo sections in Nos. 3 and 6 with passionate conviction. Claire Seaton’s account of Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit contains some equally thrilling moments. Though her crescendi occasionally sound somewhat devisal, she nevertheless possesses a glorious tone throughout, particularly in the higher portions of her register.

This CD is perhaps better-suited to the connoisseur, the person who already boasts a reasonable knowledge of Ein deutches Requiem in its orchestral form. Just as the first-time listener would benefit greatly from listening to the adeptness of Brahms’ symphonic writing, those more familiar with the work who are seeking to discover something new stand to gain the most from the alternative approach presented here. Make no mistake, however: far from being a gimmick, this recording is certainly worthy of a place alongside the numerous other versions of Brahms’ choral masterpiece.

William Norris