United Kingdom Brahms, Mozart: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Francesco Piemontesi (piano), Eleanor Dennis (soprano), Mark Stone (baritone), CBSO Chorus, (Matthew Hamilton Chorus Master), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Manze (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 22.10.2015 (GR)
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 25, K503
Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), Op 45
Although the text Brahms employs for his Ein deutsches Requiem is taken from the Old and New Testaments (plus two verses of the Apocrypha) it makes no reference to Christianity as such. This was intentional, giving the work universal rather than national or sectarian appeal. Indeed, after its premiere in 1869, the composer pointed out that he might well have omitted ‘German’ from the title and substituted ‘Human’. And this performance of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Andrew Manze on 22nd Oct 2015 was a human one, reflecting the highs and lows of life.
The piece was inspired while Brahms was mourning the loss of his mother and the first movement Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they that mourn) very much conveyed a feeling of bereavement. The reiterations of Selig sind from the CBSO Chorus were truly blessed; their variations of the Beatitude couplet offering both soothing sympathy and heavenly solace, emotions smoothly aided at times by the oboe of Rainer Gibbons. It was a superb opener: the German text coming across well whether the voices were in unison, the repeated Getröstet (comfort), or in sequence, Die mit Tränen (with tears). The soaring sopranos on denn sie sollen (for they shall) were inspirational. Manze added a marschemässig to the continuing langsam tempo for the second movement Denn alles Fleisch (For all flesh), Antoine Siguré solidly beating out the rhythm. The music drove forward at funereal pace to the texts of Peter and James, before liltingly celebrating the ‘fruits of the earth’.
After the A Section reprise, Manze strikingly burst forth with a triumphant Aber des Herrn Wort (But the Word of the Lord). Mark Stone was imposing enough as the baritone soloist in the next section Herr, lehre doch mich (Lord make me know) although I thought his words from Isaiah more pleading that prayerful. The sopranos of the CBSO chorus led the way in the popular fourth movement Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How amiable are thy tabernacles). Birmingham is blessed with a richly acclaimed choir, and they once again stole the show on 22nd Oct 2015 with this movement; with Director Simon Halsey seemingly taking a back seat, it was Matthew Hamilton of the Hallé who was credited as Chorus Master, proving he had done his homework well.
With Susan Gritton unavailable, Eleanor Dennis took her part at ‘very short notice’ so this was not perhaps the ideal occasion on which to review her. As the choir had a well-deserved sit, Dennis’ first phrase of Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (And ye now therefore have sorrow) was impressive and stressed her operatic potential. Likewise her closing und habe grossen Trost funden (And now have great consolation) captured the text perfectly. However in between I would have liked to have seen a bit more colour variation. After Stone had prophesied of Corinthians’ mystery in the Andante sixth movement, Manze generated genuine passion from both orchestra and chorus, sufficient ‘trump’ to raise the dead, victory was in his hands with honour and power to deny the grave. Tremendous sound to fill the auditorium! Matching the music to the text is vital to a good reception of Brahms’ Op 45 and this was manifestly evident in the epitaph Selig sind die Toten (Blessed are the dead). When the strains of the opening movement returned, it capped a comforting performance of Ein deutsches Requiem.
The concert had opened with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 25, K503, with Francesco Piemontesi as soloist. Having heard a definitive interpretation of K.595 from Maria João Pires only a few days before, it was difficult not to compare the two soloists and their backing. Whereas there was a touch of the showman about Piemontesi, I thought he lacked the finesse of Pires; that twinkle, present in many of Mozart’s later piano concertos, was lacking. And somewhat surprisingly, the chamber players of the CBSO under Manze seemed rather heavy in the opening Allegro maestoso although with K.503 there is always the opportunity to play ‘Spot the Opera’. The Andante featured some excellent wind playing from the CBSO, including a memorable flute contribution from Veronika Kirova (where was Zupancic?). I found Piemontesi’s final Allegretto more to my liking, as did the audience; the former BBC New Generation Artist felt sufficiently rewarded to give them a brief encore.