Good, fresh CBSO performance of Ein Deutsches Requiem in Birmingham

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Brahms: Camilla Tilling (soprano), Florian Boesch (baritone); CBSO Chorus; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor). Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 4.3.2020. (JQ)

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the CBSO (c) Chris Christodoulou

Mozart – Serenade in C minor, K388 

Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op.45

The CBSO is currently engaged on a two-season celebration of the orchestra’s centenary (which actually occurs in autumn 2020). An important element in this celebration, at least in the 2019/20 season, has been the inclusion of a number of major choral works, which means that the CBSO choruses can join in. We have already had memorable accounts of Tippett’s A Child of our Time (review) and Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (review). Still to come are Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (in April) and Britten’s War Requiem (in June). Now we heard Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has conducted some of the Brahms symphonies previously with the CBSO but, to the best of my recollection, this was the first time she has conducted Ein Deutsches Requiem in Birmingham.

Brahms’ great choral work presents a programming problem. At about seventy minutes in length – that was my timing of this performance – it’s not really long enough to constitute a full concert by itself. However, any music that is programmed alongside it must be carefully chosen, both in terms of length and in terms of either compatibility with or contrast to Brahms’ score. The selection of Mozart’s C minor Wind Serenade was an imaginative one. It’s a work that I came to admire very much when the wind octet of which I was a member some forty years ago performed it; chances to hear it live since then have not often come my way.

The Serenade is scored for pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns. The octet, discreetly led by principal oboist Kyeong Ham, stood in a semicircle at the front of the stage. The eight players were projecting their sound into a very large space but it’s a tribute to the wonderfully precise acoustic of Symphony Hall that they could be heard with complete clarity and yet with not the slightest suggestion that the tone was being forced. The strong, dark opening to the first movement showed at once that balance between the eight instruments was expertly judged – and it remained so calibrated throughout the whole performance. Every time that opening figure was heard the sound was full and sonorous but, in contrast, the dolce second subject, introduced by the first oboe, was gracefully played by the group. I admired the crispness of ensemble and the way the music was stylishly pointed. The elegant, short second movement was very nicely phrased. The third movement is a Menuetto. The players took it at quite a lively tempo. Such a speed would have not been conducive to dancing but it suited the use of canons in Mozart’s writing. The finale is a set of variations and the players characterised these very well indeed, bringing a good deal of dynamic light and shade to the music. Mozart’s variations may be concise but they’re inventive and the musicians brought them to life. I loved the effervescent major-key conclusion. This was a thoroughly engaging performance and it had the definite sense of eight colleagues enjoying making music together.

After the interval, much larger forces were assembled for Ein Deutsches Requiem. I have had the good fortune to sing in quite a few performances of this great work over the years but I’ve had surprisingly few chances to listen to it as a member of the audience. I found Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s approach to the score very interesting.

The opening movement, ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen’ is marked Zeimlich langsam und mit Ausdruck (Quite slowly and with expression). There was plenty of expression, both from the CBSO Chorus and from the orchestra, in which lower instruments are much in evidence hereabouts. However, I would not have described the speed set by Ms. Gražinytė-Tyla as ‘quite slow’. In fact, she adopted quite a flowing tempo. This had the benefit of bringing out the lyrical side of the music but I felt that a degree of gravitas was missing. The movement took only some 10 minutes to play, which is quite swift. Having said that, I will return to the question of the tempo for this movement later on in this review.

The march that dominates the opening minutes of the second movement had an ominous tread to it; that was emphasised by the expertly weighted contributions of timpanist Matthew Hardy I liked the treatment of all this music very much. I was mildly surprised that Ms. Gražinytė-Tyla didn’t move the pace on a bit more than she did for the contrasting episode, ‘So seid nun geduldig’, but even so she invested the music with the light, airy feel it demands. This movement contains the first of the work’s big fugues (‘Die Erlöseten des Herrn’). This was taken at a well-chosen speed that enabled the CBSO Chorus to define the music very well, though this was one of several occasions when I felt that the tenor section, well though they sang, was a little underpowered: a few more voices would have helped the balance with other sections.

The third movement brought the first contribution from Florian Boesch. He is a singer I have long admired, though most of my experience of him to date has been in the field of Lieder. He certainly didn’t disappoint tonight. His voice was firmly produced and he communicated the meaning of the words strongly. I especially liked his tone and sense of line at ‘Ach, wie gar nichts’. The movement ends with another fugue (‘Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand’). This went like the wind. I can honestly say I have never heard the music taken at so swift a pace – unless I’m much mistaken Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla beat the music two in a bar. In a way I can understand the approach: words and music convey exaltation that the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God. However, to be frank, the music was rushed in an unseemly fashion. The CBSO Chorus didn’t just keep up, they also articulated the music well – that’s a tribute to their expertise – but I would not wish to hear the passage performed so hectically again.

By contrast, the speed at which ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ was taken seemed well-nigh ideal. The music had a lovely, easy flow. ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ brought Camilla Tilling to the fore. The Swedish soprano delivered her celebrated solo with an attractive, silvery tone and I appreciated also the clarity of her diction. The tempo was fluent, though when necessary Ms. Gražinytė-Tyla very rightly allowed her soloist the necessary space to phrase expressively. The orchestra and chorus are subsidiary to the soloist in this movement and they all showed great sensitivity.

The penultimate movement, ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’ gave us one more opportunity to hear Florian Boesch. He offered a wide-ranging performance. I loved the subtlety with which, for example, he sang the word ‘Geheimnis’, but later on he was much more dramatic in his delivery, which is just what’s wanted. The choral and orchestral depiction of the Last Trump was suitably punchy and the final fugue in the work, ‘Herr, du bist würdig’ was ideally paced. The CBSO Chorus sang this section robustly but I was delighted by the amount of contrast and variety they brought to the fugue; sometimes it can seem several pages too long, but not when sung and played like this.

Ms. Gražinytė-Tyla chose a tempo at the start of the last movement, ‘Selig sind die Toten’ that moved the music forward with purpose but not excessively so. I thought that the way she interpreted the music was in keeping with the words. More significantly, the tempo was shrewdly judged so that when she reached the more pensive passage, ‘Ja, der Geist spricht’ her choir could sing the music expressively without any need to slow the speed – exactly as the score dictates. I said I would return to the question of the tempo for the first movement. Towards the end of the work Brahms revisits the music with which he began Ein Deutsches Requiem over an hour before. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla maintained a pretty consistent speed throughout the final movement and we found that it matched her pacing of the opening movement. Truly, a case of ‘In my end is my beginning’. I may not have been entirely at ease with the pacing of the first movement but it is clear that it was selected with careful thought.

Despite one or two reservations, this was a very good, fresh performance of Ein Deutsches Requiem. We heard two distinguished soloists and both the CBSO Chorus, trained by Julian Wilkins, and the orchestra were on excellent form. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO are soon to embark on a tour of Germany and Austria. During the course of this they will perform Ein Deutsches Requiem twice in Vienna’s Musikverein on 15 and 16 March. They will be joined by tonight’s soloists but the CBSO Chorus won’t be making that particular trip: instead the orchestra will join forces with the Weiner Singverein.

John Quinn

2 thoughts on “Good, fresh CBSO performance of <i>Ein Deutsches Requiem</i> in Birmingham”

  1. Hello John

    It’s me again!

    Thanks for your very thoughtful review of the Brahms Requiem. My wife and I were also in the audience. Like you, I have sung it several times, and I don’t remember ever being in the audience for it before, which is a quite different experience. I think, as a work, it is quite a hard ‘sell’ to an audience; as a performer you can enjoy countless little moments, but in the audience you have to take it as a whole.

    As you know, it is also quite brutal in its demands, especially for the sopranos and tenors. To sing the fugue in the 6th movement and still manage that glorious long line in the final movement takes a lot of doing, and I thought the sopranos and tenors did that wonderfully well. In fact, I think the Chorus sopranos are its crowning glory generally. Intonation and blend are generally excellent, and for this concert I thought the diction and quality of the German were also outstanding.

    I sang it the last time the Chorus did it a few years ago with Andrew Manze, and he took the fugues at a generally more ‘baroque’ tempo, which helps the choir a lot. Mirga certainly did the 3rd movement fugue at an exciting pace (!), but gave the choir no relief in that respect in the 6th movement.

    Mirga may sometimes choose stylistic options which you can debate, but for sure there is always a logic to them, as you know. She is such an interesting musician.

    I had not heard the soloists before, and was looking forward to hearing Florian Boesch; I was not disappointed. He was very dramatic. I also thought Camilla Tilling sang beautifully, although her type of voice is not my favourite, but that is just a personal thing.

    I felt the orchestra was totally committed, which is not always the case with an orchestra in a choral work. They really are a joy to listen to. It’s a pity the Chorus is not going to Vienna with them; Vienna’s loss!

    In terms of criticism, I think we are both are looking at the minutiae of the performance, but should also remind ourselves how lucky we are to hear a work like this performed at this level in such a wonderful hall.

    All the best,

  2. Cliff,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I don’t disagree with anything you say, least of all your final paragraph.

    I think your point about the work being something of a ‘sell’ to audiences is well made. Wednesday’s spirited performance was (rightly) the antithesis to those who mistakenly regard the work as “morose”.

    I’m a tenor myself so I know what demands Brahms places on that section of the choir – and the sopranos are also consistently challenged, as you observe – but it’s all very rewarding to sing.


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