Dining out on Brahms

Newbury Choral Society’s menu offers a lot to digest



BRAHMS called his requiem ‘German’ to distinguish it from the more familiar Catholic liturgical setting. His choice of texts from Luther’s translation of the Psalms and the New Testament reflects humanist rather than orthodox Christian leanings. He refused to include references to ‘the redeeming death of the Lord’, preferring the more optimistic and serene message of the Beatitudes, mixed with positive and cathartic passages from the Psalms. Written in response to the death of both his friend Schumann and that of his mother in 1865, the work emerged gradually, with three movements premiered in Vienna and Bremen in 1867 and the final version with all its seven movements in Zürich and Dresden in 1868.

This was the central item of Newbury Choral Society’s spring concert on Saturday. Their conductor Cathal Garvey, supported by Southern Sinfonia, provided us with enough Lenten meditation to prepare for the resurrection in two weeks’ time.



Newbury Choral Society: Brahms’ German Requiem
, at St Nicolas Church, Newbury, on Saturday, March 12

Initially, the choir sounded undaunted by Brahms’ almost excessive demands on tessitura and perseverance, but an hour later, the wear and tear of the afternoon was beginning to show. (Must there always be a long rehearsal on the day?) The soprano solo in the fifth movement, ‘I will comfort you as a mother comforts her child’, is a poisoned chalice for even the most accomplished singer. Mia Huhta acquitted herself well with soaring heights and a dominating persona.

Baritone Alexander Robin Baker’s ringing, almost tenor-like high notes in his solo ‘Lord teach me that I must have an end’ furnished a masculine, life-affirming counterpoint.

The soprano solo in the fifth movement … is a poisoned chalice for even the most accomplished singer. Mia Huhta acquitted herself well with soaring heights and a dominating persona



For this pair of ears, the rich banquet of the Brahms would have been enough to digest for one evening. But Garvey saw fit to precede it with the Haydn motet Insanae et Vanae Curae, the music of which comes from his 1775 oratorio The Return of Tobias, on a libretto by the cellist Luigi Boccherini’s brother, Giovanni Gastone. (The revision in 1784 was attended by a certain Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.) The Latin text was added later to make a stand-alone motet.

Between that and the Brahms, we heard the two extant movements of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. How was it possible for Schubert to compose so much music in 31 years? The suspicion must be that the troubled young Franz needed to write his way out of personal difficulties on numerous pages of manuscript paper per day. After ‘smiling through tears’ in the great tunes of the opening, with just the right mixture of optimism and hopelessness, Garvey handled the sighing coda of the first movement particularly well.

The orchestra’s fine but unnamed wind soloists shone in the second, a sort of pilgrim’s minuet with all the sweetness and melancholy we expect of classical Vienna.



Reproduced with the kind permission of Newbury Weekly News