18th November 2017, Nailsea School Auditorium

Conductor : Tom Williams
Soloists: Laura Curry – Soprano and Marcus Evans – Bass
Pianos: Douglas Stevens and David Bednall

Brahms’ German Requiem isn’t long enough to stand alone as a programme so the Nailsea Choral Society’s November concert opened with six attractive miniatures shared between choir and soloists. Bruckner’s evergreen Locus iste and Rheinberger’s exquisite Abendlied helped choir and audience adjust to the disconcertingly dry ambience of Nailsea School Auditorium, designed to assist delivery of the spoken word but which denies singers the bloom and resonance found in the traditional English church venues where choirs generally perform. Next up was bass soloist Marcus Evans with Schubert’s celebrated An die Musik and Schumann’s tender song of devotion, Widmung, warmly and sensitively sung. Stepping into later romantic territory, soprano Laura Curry delivered compelling performances of Richard Strauss’ magical but ultimately fearful Die Nacht and fervent dedication Zueignung, all four songs sympathetically accompanied by Douglas Stevens.

Pending the on-schedule arrival of David Bednall the evening’s second pianist, Tom Williams gave the audience an informed and user-friendly outline of the background of the version of Brahms’ German Requiem accompanied not by an orchestra but by two pianists on two pianos, presumably partly why the choir had shifted camp to a more spacious venue. This version enables a choir of this size to compete on equal terms and give a more nuanced interpretation than if its main goal is to hold its own against a full orchestra.

From the outset, this pragmatic choice was vindicated. Indeed the restrained and intensely expressive quiet choral singing throughout extended passages of the music was one of many lovely features of this performance, skilfully keeping powder dry for greater impact in the sections where a thrilling full sound was essential.

There were a few moments when the composer’s demands were not entirely met but Brahms must take responsibility for his arguably unreasonable writing where the soprano line soars on ‘unkind’ vowels at the upper limits of the vocal range, and for throwing in exhausting complex fugal sections at the end of long movements when the choir has already given its all. Any discomfort was short-lived and Tom Williams’ musicality and thorough preparation of the choir constantly shone through with excellent attention to overall landscaping, beautiful phrasing and specific detail.

Douglas Stevens and David Bednall, distinguished performers in their own right, provided appropriately sonorous support from the grand pianos in the nobler passages as well as great delicacy for the more muted sections and the exquisite solos, delivered with a fine sense of style and assured authority by Marcus Evans and Laura Curry.

This was a hugely enjoyable performance of this listener’s favourite extended Requiem, with its emphasis on comforting the bereaved rather than pleading for the safe passage of the soul of the dead through the terrors of Purgatory. The choir has little experience of singing in German so it was particularly enterprising to go for the version in Brahms’ own language which was communicated with total conviction and evident understanding. The helpful notes and parallel German / English texts in the programme further enhanced the appreciative audience’s listening experience.

Andrea Argent

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