The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart
Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem
Emma Sayers and Richard Mapp (piano)
Katherine McIndoe (soprano) and Simon Christie (baritone)
Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul
Saturday 27 May, 7:30 pm
Brahms’s Requiem is known well enough by name and reputation to all tolerably interested in Music, but fewer would be familiar with it or have actually heard it live. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it in live performance, and have, somewhat to my embarrassment only become familiar with it on recordings in the last twenty years or so. The Orpheus Choir, naturally, has been its main advocate in Wellington over the years; my colleague Rosemary Collier, a long-time singer in the choir, looked up its history in the choir’s archive. They sang it in October 1968, October 1976, April 1988, September 1996, and November 2008. And it was sung by the New Zealand Choral Federation Choral Workshop a few years ago, too. The only record I can find of the NZSO’s participation was in the 1996 performance; I do not have a programme or any record of my reviewing either the 1988 or 1996 performances, both during my years at The Evening Post.
First, this was an extremely fine performance, spirited, colourful, scrupulously studied and rehearsed; the accompaniment was by duet pianists instead of orchestra, and their performances were pianistically admirable, if obviously not really a match for Brahms’s important and beautiful orchestral score.
Brahms had arranged the alternative accompaniment for piano duet for its first London performance in the home of a prominent surgeon where a small choir (about the size of the Tudor Consort, according to Michael Stewart’s notes) without an orchestra, could perform it. The piano duo of Emma Sayers and Richard Mapp excelled themselves in their formidable task of emulating Brahms’s emotionally charged orchestra.
Interestingly, Brahms incorporated into the piano score the choral and solo parts so that it could be played simply as a piano work. And indeed, whenever I turned my attention to the piano, it certainly seemed to invite admiration as a rather gorgeous piano work in its own right, as some kind of Strauss-length symphonic poem for the piano, or a suite ‘inspired by elegiac Biblical readings’.
The piano introduction was propitious, with most of the weight in the lower register, setting a suitably elegiac tone. At least the first few minutes suggested that the piano would offer a reasonably satisfactory substitute for the richness of an orchestra. And the choir begins in a similar spirit, uttering slow phrases that filled the space, with congenial, uncluttered echoing effects. And there were moments of illumination as the choir sang words like ‘mit Freuden ernten’.
The choir was arrayed in two sections, left and right at the front of the sanctuary: sopranos and tenors on the left, basses and altos on the right. It was aurally interesting to hear the parts distinctly.
The lovely, sombre piano introduction to the second part, ‘Denn alles Fleisch…’, also caught my ear. Though I read German adequately, I don’t know the words well, and had difficulty following the text, partly as Brahms moves the text about, and the cathedral acoustic doesn’t exactly clarify words; it also matters where you sit. I wasn’t in the first ten or so rows. Nevertheless, given that this was a smallish and superbly schooled choir, I’m sure that singers’ diction was pretty good.
The second is the longest section of the work, and though it’s taken from four different Biblical sources, the first (1 Peter) is finding solace in the evolving natural world, and in the second, from James, celebrating the joys to be found. The heart of this movement is with the splendidly triumphant ‘Die Erlöseten des Herrn…’, in which one might have enjoyed a bigger choir. But they captured its spirit admirably, powerful at its climaxes.
The baritone soloist arrives in ‘Herr, lehre mich doch ’. Simon Christie’s lines somewhat resemble a particularly expressive recitative interspersed by choral passages, and he met the challenge of conveying the declamatory verses from Psalm 39, capturing the sharp contrast in tone with the words ‘Ach, wie gar nichts…’. Its splendid climax, involving a rise from hushed silence to a triumphant affirmation of faith, pretty well overcame the limitations of choral volume and lack of the orchestra.
A consoling change of tone in the gentle fourth movement, ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’; and on to the soprano’s movement, ‘Ich habe nun Traurigkeit’, with Katherine McIndoe. Her lines were even in tone, legato, well projected; in short capturing the beautiful, flowing and peaceful spirit of the three excerpts that comprise the seven minutes or so of this poignant episode with subtle contributions from the choir.
Simon Christie returns to a vigorous episode where Brahms uses the same verses from Corinthians as in Messiah, ‘Behold, I tell you a mystery’: always a curious experience to hear a different setting of words indelibly fixed in the mind by the likes of Handel. (Why do I remark this, with the hundreds of settings of standard liturgical texts that bother no one?). But Brahms’s view fitted the context, especially the powerful performance by the choir reinforcing the baritone. The fugal passage and formidable climax towards its end brought the spirit of the work back to its Baroque antecedents.
The last section sets a short verse from Revelation, simply confirming that we are listening to a requiem. Calm and peace are restored; there are no words of a hereafter, merely that the dead may rest from their labours: Brahms a spiritual figure, but not an orthodox believer.
This was a fine performance, a singular credit to conductor Michael Stewart, generally overcoming the obvious shortcomings imposed by the choir’s size, the acoustic and the stringencies of Wellington – New Zealand – cultural circumstances.