In recording this live performance of Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem(A German Requiem) opus 45 in July 2013, the Choir of St James’ King Street directed by Warren Trevelyan-Jones ventures into repertoire we would not often hear from this fine ensemble, whose focus leans towards music from both earlier and more recent times. For many reasons, the piano version of Brahms’ Requiem, also known as the ‘London Version’, sung in German on this CD is a clever choice for this chamber-sized choir.
When Brahms wrote his seven movement Requiem between 1865 and 1867 (the 5th movement was added in 1868), it was not intended to be a miniature. Scored for soprano and bass soloists, full choir and orchestra and organ, it seemed he was following “Schumann’s mandate …..to ‘direct his magic wand where the massed forces of chorus and orchestra may lend him their power’. “
However, in the interests of wider performers and audiences, and at the request of his publisher, Brahms himself re-wrote the instrumental parts for piano and four hands. This version was premiered in London in 1861 and although it is perhaps not performed as frequently as the original version, it has held its ground in the repertoire and the recording by the Choir of St James’ is a welcome addition to the discography which too, is weighted towards the full orchestral version. Not just a piano reduction of the original, Brahms’ adaptation allows the choral sound to shine through the delicacy of the piano writing making it an eminently suitable work for a smaller vocal ensemble.
There several other reasons apart from the instrumentation why Brahms’ Requiem suits this choir so well. Eschewing the traditional Latin text, Brahms turned to his own Lutheran upbringing, using for his setting, 15 passages from Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible. The spiritual ethos of the Requiem lies, like Bach’s inspiration, in Lutheranism.
As well, although the style of writing frequently has a Romantic feel and evokes the drama of Brahms’ lieder, it also contains complex fugal writing and other Baroque – style devices performed by this experienced ensemble with insight and skill.
Entering with the hushed devotion of Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they who mourn) the choir displays supreme control in the most tender passages, amply conveys the long march through suffering arriving at a glorious and powerful climax in Denn alles Fleisch (Then all flesh is as grass), conveying a lilting reassurance in Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely are Thy dwelling places) and the redemptive joy of the final movement, Selig sind die Toten (Blessed are the dead). The support rendered to the soloists is restrained and empathetic, achieving a beautiful blend.
Director Warren Trevelyan-Jones has used the Carus-Verlag edition for his 21 voice choir with soloists soprano Natalie Aroyan and bass Richard Anderson and pianists Anthony Hunt and Associate Music Director of Opera Australia, Anthony Legge. Together, the pianists provide an unobtrusive yet unshakeable foundation.
It is wonderful to hear bass Richard Anderson again, the declamatory Den wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt (Here we have no continuing place) the perfect vehicle for his impressive power and timbre; soprano Natalie Aroyan sings the 5th movement Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (Now you have no sorrow) with anguish and sorrow, her passionate lamentations fading to a near whisper in the closing bars of this movement, added by Brahms in response to the death of his mother.
The CD is accompanied by a booklet which contains the full text in both German and English, along with scholarly and fully annotated explanations by Isabella Woods.
Recording a live performance is not for the faint hearted. It is an unforgiving exercise with no second chances and needs consideration of voices, instruments, soloists and the acoustics of the venue, not forgetting the unpredictability and unsettling effects that the vagaries of traffic noises can have! Bravo to Recording Engineer Jayson McBride and his production team
Warren Trevelyan-Jones has led a cohesive and empathetic ensemble which delivers a superb performance in convincing style.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©
The Choir of St James’ King Street along with the Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral and Australian Baroque Brass will perform A Venetian Coronation conducted by Gabrieli Consort founder and early music specialist Paul McCreesh. The concert will include Paul McCreesh’s sumptuous reconstruction of a 16th century coronation mass in St Mark’s Basilica. Click here for more.
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This review was first published on 7 May 2014, the 181st anniversary of Brahms’ birth.