Brahms’ German Requiem, and Parry’s Songs of Farewell

St John’s, Smith Square, Westminster, Saturday 10th May 2003

Inspired pairing is great musical treat

It might all too easily have sounded like a rehearsal. The Brahms Requiem with piano duet? It may have been this thought that kept the audience rather meagre. The repeated low F at the start certainly shocked the senses: the percussive effect of this haunting opening on the piano rather than softly pulsing strings was very unfamiliar, but in the event the performance was a triumphant vindication. The choral textures were given prominence, every detail was clear, every word audible.

And why not piano duet? After all, it was Brahms’s own arrangement; it was the way the piece was first heard in London, at a private concert; and actually Brahms, like Beethoven, often wrote orchestral textures that could have been intended for piano with their detailed accompaniment figures and dense spacing. Jeremy Filsell and Mark Shepherd were good advocates, producing some highly expressive phrasing and colourful sonorities, despite occasional instances where the placing of a chord was not quite unanimous – the eternal scourge of duettists. The effect was brighter than we are used to, but this is no bad thing in a piece whose details are all too often obscured in Stygian gloom.

It is hard to talk of highlights in this performance in which so much was from the top drawer. Perhaps most interesting were the two big fugues, which avoided the usual bombast and whose architecture was clearly delineated by conductor Jeremy Backhouse. The arch of the final chorus too was elegantly and expressively managed. Few in the audience can have been impervious to the thrill of the fortes in ‘Denn alles Fleisch’ or been unstirred by the breakneck speed of ‘Der Tod ist verschlungen’. Soloists Helen Neeves and Colin Campbell excelled in their solo movements. Both were ideally suited to their roles and Helen in particular was deeply moving in her intimate portrayal of grief, ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’, which with piano accompaniment became one of Brahms’s most sensitive Lieder, to which the seated chorus provided a hushed chorale-like background.

The first half of the concert was Parry’s valedictory Songs of Farewell – an inspired pairing for the Brahms. Beautiful and much underrated music, here sensitively and indeed often very beautifully sung. This is music that clearly suits the choir to perfection. It sounds as if it is in their blood, which is (sadly and remarkably) a rare thing with English choirs singing English music, and which is deeply moving when experienced in live performance. Phrases were caressed; the meaning of the splendid texts powerfully communicated; rhythms, however complex, were natural and free; the constantly varying textures were thoroughly understood and balanced with acute aural awareness. The members of the audience who stayed away missed a great musical treat, which those who were present are the richer for having experienced.

© Declan Deuchar 2003

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