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Review 21 November 2015

Brahms: A German Requiem with other works

It occasionally happens that a concert programme takes on unexpected significance, shaped by external events. Such was the case on Saturday 21st November when a performance by Thornbury Choral Society of Brahms’ A German Requiem was given at the Castle School; the occasion was particularly poignant, coming as it did only a week after the indiscriminate massacre of more than 120 innocent people in Paris.

Vocal music grows from a text. The composer seeks to express the depth of meaning hidden in that text, and - at the most profound level - the complex musical structures that result can provide a real test of stamina for the performers. This is the case with the German Requiem where the opening statement (“Selig sind…” – “Blessed are they that mourn”) is simple and direct, but leads to one substantial movement after another.

However, despite its length and seriousness, there is another side to this music of Brahms’ early maturity; that is its intimacy. This can be especially apparent in the version heard on Saturday where piano accompaniment replaces a large orchestra.  Brahms had been deeply affected by the death of his friend Robert Schumann in 1856. In 1865, Brahms lost his mother; her death left him inconsolable. Whatever may have been Brahms’ motivation for his Requiem, he expresses his personal thoughts in such a way that he was able to say to a friend that he would have been quite happy to let the work be known as ‘A Human Requiem’.

Brahms chose his own texts from the German Bible (another indication of the deeply personal aspect of the work). Saturday’s performance was sung in the original language rather than English translation, a brave move when amateur singers might find it tricky enough to achieve security in the musical demands of the work. However, the chorus of some 75 voices certainly rose to that challenge, sustaining the intensity of the music through this demanding score: not an easy task in any hall and certainly not in a dry acoustic (Thornbury does need a new auditorium!).

The two soloists, Frances Gregory (soprano) and Samuel Oram (baritone), were also vital to the success of the performance, both of them adding with sensitivity that extra dimension to the musical structure that Brahms demands. The single movement which involves the soprano soloist requires a rich, even tone in a sustained line that moves effortlessly to high B flat; this we heard in the voice of Frances Gregory. Meanwhile, it was a pleasure to hear the two movements involving the single male soloist sung by a true baritone: warm and even in tone throughout the range demanded by the composer, and never strained or over-stated.

The success of the evening’s performance also depended immeasurably upon the fine piano accompaniment provided by Christopher Northam and Gus Tredwell, and of course the assured direction of the conductor, Steven Kings, who drew from the chorus such a well-honed and committed reading of this profound score.

The first half of the concert included two short choral works: Mendelssohn’s much-loved Hear my prayer, and (immediately before the interval) Stanford’s Magnifcat and Nunc Dimittis in G, the text of the latter leading neatly on to the Requiem. Between these two items, the audience was treated to a captivating selection of waltzes in varying moods for piano duet by Brahms from his Opus 39 set. Here was the composer in lighter vein (though he was always essentially an earnest soul), providing a well-judged moment of contrast in the evening’s music. But, coincidentally, one couldn’t help thinking of those who had been innocently enjoying life in Paris that Friday evening in mid-November before meeting their untimely end…

This was a thoroughly rewarding concert - a thoughtful reflection of so many facets of life and beyond that was the result of a great deal of hard work; it was good to be there.

Richard Jones