Superlative Singing and First Class Playing in Brahms’ Requiem

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Haydn:  Gisela Stille (soprano), John Lundgren (baritone), BBC National  Chorus of Wales, National Youth Choir of Wales, BBC National Orchestra of Wales/ Thomas Søndergård (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 13.6.2014 (PCG)

Haydn – Symphony No 99 in E flat (1793)
Brahms – A German Requiem, Op.45 (1868)


In the past there were generally recognised as being two ways to perform Brahms’ German Requiem. Either one adopted a solemn and massive approach (in the mould that became associated with Klemperer), or one played up the more dramatic elements of the score (the Karajan method). In more recent years a third style has emerged, informed by the ‘authenticist’ brigade – a faster treatment of the music, often using a smaller body of singers and a similarly small-scaled orchestra of period instruments (Norrington being the first in this field). But this more ‘modern’ approach has often led to ill-balanced performances, with important thematic figures hard if not impossible to hear properly, and have tended also to sacrifice the sense of mourning that permeates the music.

In this performance using unashamedly full-scale forces in the romantic tradition, Thomas Søndergård appeared nonetheless to have taken some note of the trend towards faster speeds, but he justified this in a performance that was high on dramatic impact without in any way downplaying the underlying tone of the German Requiem. I overheard someone during the interval complaining that the work was not being sung in English, but in fact the translation provided in the standard Novello vocal score plays havoc with Brahms’s note values in its attempt to stick to the Authorised Version of the Biblical texts, of which the editor Ivor Atkins (the friend of Elgar) should have been heartily ashamed. And – praise be! – the BBC programme provided the audience with the full texts in German together with an English translation, which gave us the best of both worlds. This enabled Søndergård to concentrate on the meaning of the text, carefully differentiating for example between the two choral statements of Denn alles Fleisch in the second movement and allowing the repeat of the passage to garner even greater passion. His treatment of the third movement was speedy and dramatic too, leading in the fugue to a climax worthy of Bruckner’s Te Deum. The choral singing was thrilling and full-toned throughout, never obscured even by the most strenuous of orchestral outbursts as the last trumpet sounded in the sixth movement. The final movement, with its closing reference to the opening of the work, is often treated as a mournful contemplation; but here Søndergård took notice of the words “Blessed are the dead” to give the music an element of joy as well as sadness.

The two soloists, both singers currently working at the Danish Royal Opera in Copenhagen, might have seemed like unnecessary imports when we have so many singers of our own in Wales; but in the event they justified their presence with firm and solid singing, even when John Lundgren seemed to catch a momentary frog in his throat during the third movement. The tall and statuesque Gisela Stille supplied some beautiful poised quiet singing in Ich hab nun Traurigkeit and poured forth a stream of creamy tone elsewhere. One looks forward to encountering her again when she performs with Welsh National Opera next season. Yes, altogether this was an interesting and original take on the German Requiem which avoided many of the obvious pitfalls of over-seriousness without falling too far in the other direction.

Before the interval we had heard Haydn’s Symphony No 99, a performance that again was on the large scale (although the strings were reduced by one desk apiece) but which displayed an ideal balance between strings and wind, with all the important instrumental lines clearly audible. Repeats were taken in both the first and second movements, but here the opportunity was not taken to audibly differentiate the themes although here the sudden harmonic shift in the middle section of the second movement made much more impact when the opening material had been heard at full length. Where the performance might have benefited would have been if the violins had been split stereophonically across the stage rather than bunched together on the left in the modern manner; this would have helped in places to clarify the contrapuntal lines, as in so many scores of the classical era. On the other hand the BBC National Orchestra of Wales know the acoustic problems of St David’s Hall well, and their preference for a twentieth century platform placement might well be seen as an attempt to ensure that the body of violin tone holds together audibly. Experiences with other orchestras who have employed a left-right split of the violins in the hall have sometimes demonstrated that problems of co-ordination, with players unable to hear each other clearly, can be a real problem. So, given the circumstances, one must perforce be content.

This was announced as the closing concert of the current BBC season (although in fact there is an afternoon broadcast scheduled for next week) and it showed the orchestra at its best. We should be very grateful that it has evolved, under a series of excellent conductors, into such a superlative body, far removed from its ‘second rank’ status of some twenty years ago. And the combined chorus, 135 strong accordingly to the programme, were simply superlative and fully a match for – to take an example – the old Philharmonia chorus on the Klemperer recording. The concert was broadcast live, but can still be heard on the BBC i-player during the course of next week. One looks forward with eager anticipation to the next season from these combined forces, which is to include performances of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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