Brahms composed his Ein Deutsches Requiem not as a Catholic mass but as a comfort to the bereaved. He chose verses from his German Bible that concern the world of the living, and composed for them some of the most beautiful music in the Western canon. A new recording from the Yale Schola Cantorum conducted by David Hill presents a worthy new chamber orchestration by Iain Farrington.
This new arrangement should enable more singers and musicians to have the experience of performing this great work, and even more important, let more listeners hear it in concert. Meanwhile, the debut recording of Farrington’s arrangement is absolutely stellar.
While the composer’s own version for piano four-hands makes what is commonly known as the “Brahms Requiem” easier to program, it cedes almost the entire focus to his choral writing. Farrington’s new chamber arrangement for piano, string quartet, and three woodwinds finds a well-balanced middle ground, preserving much of the orchestral drama and tonal coloration without requiring a symphony orchestra. Shaped by Hill’s sensitive pacing and dynamics, the music rises and falls with the meaning of the words in just the way the composer intended.
From the opening strains of the first movement, even before the chorus enters, the warm, deeply felt character of the performance is evident. And when the voices enter, the small size of the chorus is meaningful immediately, as you can hear the tonal quality of individual voices, making the experience visceral and intimate. In the second movement, where Brahms achieved an almost magical fusion of the funereal with the hopeful, you can almost see the withering of the grass and hear the resurrected “come to Zion with rejoicing.” You can feel the triumph in the assertion that “the word of the Lord abides for eternity.”
In the third movement the musical dialogue between baritone Matt Sullivan and the chorus feels forthright and honest. The closing double fugue a thrilling ride. And during the sweetly pastoral fourth you wouldn’t know you’re in the midst of a Requiem at all, neither from the words nor from the music.
Subtle and supple-voiced soprano Natasha Schnur sagely lets the fifth movement’s melodies speak for themselves, her voice weaving in and out of the string and woodwind lines like a skein of golden thread. The sixth movement’s famous triple-meter section is as exciting as one would hope for, as the chorus demands “Death, where is your sting? Hell, where is your victory?”
Kevin Sherwin and Nola Richardson write in their liner notes that the German Requiem‘s “subject matter, the universal experience of loss, mourning, comfort and peace, still resonates with modern audiences.” Of course that’s true, but I think the piece’s ongoing popularity 150 years after its creation derives at least as much from the music’s sheer magnificence. This recording beautifully conveys both its human feeling and its pure aesthetic magic.
There’s a striking warmth to the performance overall – a sense of intimacy founded in the immersive work of the singers and instrumentalists, aided by Farrington’s sparkling new chamber arrangement, and richly informed by conductor Hill’s deep understanding of the Brahms Requiem.