Johannes Brahms

Ein Deutsches Requiem


20th October 2018

Church of St John the Baptist, Wellington

Small, But Perfectly Formed


The music of Brahms can assume disguises – the symphonies can be an assault on the ears by huge orchestras like Rattle’s Berlin Philharmonic or they can charm us, as in the refined and downsized performances by Roger Norrington.  So with the German Requiem – yes, a 100-strong choral society and an orchestra to match can produce a thrilling, overpowering sound.  And yet, there is great delicacy in the writing, calling for a like treatment to bring out the work’s inner beauty.


Last Saturday a modestly-sized audience in St. John’s, Wellington heard the 22 voices of The Collegium Singers conducted by Tomos Watkins perform the Requiem to a 4-handed piano accompaniment.  It was a compelling performance which revealed the intimacy of the music and the emphasis on peace, tranquillity and calm acceptance of adversity, made possible by trust in God.  Like the Fauré, ‘Ein Deutsches Requiem’ has no terror of the Day of Judgement or fear to face the Almighty.


Karen Paul and Alison Pink played the piano duet arrangement with great aplomb and flexibility and thoroughly deserved the applause specifically directed at them by the appreciative audience.  True, the piano does not permit the varied sound colours possible from an orchestra, but their responsiveness to the conductor and keen attention to dynamics made their contribution to the evening very memorable.


Collegium’s hallmark is a clear, transparent sound. The opening movement demonstrated this, every line was crystal clear and the balance was excellent.  Initially there was a slight hardening of the soprano tone on the very highest notes, but the choir’s intonation was spot on and the sound warmed as the movement progressed.  Like the pianists, the singers were scrupulous in their attention to the dynamics of the work.  In the ominous, menacing second movement (‘All Flesh is as the Grass’) the contrast between the opening piano statement of the tune and the forterepeat was beautifully done and the lilting, almost ländler-like second subject was a lovely contrast.  


The baritone soloist for the evening was Jack Bowtell.  I felt that there was not quite enough weight in his performance, nor a sense of awe when considering the shortness of human life contrasted with the eternity of God. His enunciation was excellent, his German not flawless. He sang with good intonation and intelligent phrasing, but I could not detect much emotion in his interpretation.


Brahms did not give a huge showy number to the soprano soloist in this work, but what he did write demands musicality and the ability to communicate the solace and comfort which can come from God, like the love of a mother.  Freya Holliman’s performance was excellent, with great vocal clarity and good projection, a telling contribution to the evening.


Overall, Collegium were first class throughout. On a couple of occasions the tenors could have been more forthright - OK there were only four of them, but their sound was too subdued.  Similarly the altos should have powered into ‘Herr du bist würdig’ with a lot more oomph.  I did notice quite a lot of the ‘heads in copies’ syndrome in the big fugal numbers, which lessened the clarity and projection, but these are minor quibbles about what was another fine evening of music making from Collegium.  The end of work in particular, from ‘Ja, der Geist spricht’ onwards was an object lesson in choral blending and fine control – well done Tomos, well done Collegium.


Harold Mead


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