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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) An English Requiem (1871 version)
Mary Bevan (soprano) Marcus Farnsworth (baritone) James Baillieu and
Richard Uttley (piano) Choir of King’s College London/Joseph Fort
Booklet and libretto in English, also including original German sung text
rec. 2017, Trinity School, Croydon, UK DELPHIAN DCD34195 [65.18]
This recording of the Brahms German Requiem makes some surprising and rather debateable claims to authenticity, which it may well be appropriate to discuss first before moving onto the performance itself. In the first place, it begins from the premise that “the setting we know today is not the one that nineteenth-century British audiences knew and loved.” It observes that early performances were nearly always given in English translation, and this is undoubtedly true as nearly all foreign works for chorus were rendered into English by Victorian versifiers of greater or lesser talent to make them accessible to the multitudinous realms of amateur British choral societies. What we hear here is not in every detail that which might have been generally employed at that time (as, for instance, published in the Novello vocal score) and Brahms might have taken issue with the use of phrases specifically mentioning Christ which he had taken some trouble to excise from his German texts drawn from Luther’s Bible; but, to be frank, some of the Novello phraseology lies awkwardly across the notes, and there are many points at which Brahms’s melodic line is quite extensively distorted to fit the words of the King James Bible which would have been in standard use in Anglican circles at that time.
The booklet goes on to argue that many of the early performances of the Brahms Requiem were given with piano accompaniment – and often in small venues. It is certainly true that smaller choral societies would have expected to perform works in keyboard transcriptions, but except in the rarest of circumstances these would have surely been arrangements for organ rather than piano – even small Nonconformist chapels would have made use of harmonium rather than the piano, which was generally associated with domestic drawing rooms. And the larger choral societies who soon took up the Brahms score with enthusiasm would certainly have possessed the financial means to give performances with the full orchestra that the composer originally prescribed, and which is needed to give the proper effect in such passages as the timpani triplets which lead into the second choral statement of Behold all flesh is as the grass. Although there will have been domestic performances with small choirs which would have used piano accompaniment, such heavily reduced renditions would have almost invariably have been given with a solo pianist; and the use, as here, of a revised version of Brahms’s piano-duet reduction with some parts added back from the orchestral score, would have been most unusual indeed since the piano-duet version was intended for domestic hearing with no voices at all involved. Unusual though not entirely unknown, for Michael Musgrave’s informative booklet notes advises us that this was indeed how the work was first given in London, at a semi-private domestic performance in 1871 a full two years before the score was heard in a concert conducted by George Macfarren under the auspices of the Philharmonic Society of London.
What we have here then is an uneasy compromise between a domestic performance which the Victorians would certainly have regarded as second-best to a rendition with full orchestral forces, and a modern reduced version of the score which might be suitable for small choral groups unable to run to that sort of expense in times when amateur players are in short supply and professionals come expensive. In comparative recorded terms, the situation is further complicated by the fact that we already have discs enshrining performances of the Brahms Requiem in English with full orchestral accompaniment, versions in the originally published piano-duet arrangement with the choral parts transcribed for the keyboard and without voices at all: and versions where piano accompaniment, suitably adapted, is provided for sung versions in the original German. This new version does not quite conform to any of those; but to claim for it a unique verisimilitude to standard Victorian practice (the booklet indeed sidesteps such a specific description) would seem to me to be stretching the quest for authenticity beyond reasonable expectations. Although the 1871 performance has been subsequently dubbed the “London version” of the score, it seems indeed to have been a one-off, occasioned by an impatience of Brahms’s then-growing band of admirers to hear the work in performance, however makeshift. Although it was conducted by Julius Stockhausen, who had sung the baritone solo at the first German performance, Michael Musgrave’s note acknowledges that it “had no explicit authority from Brahms”. It would seem to be one among a number of alternative options.
Never mind: what of the performance itself? And this really is pretty good, provided that you don’t mind foregoing the full impact of an orchestral accompaniment. I am not sure that anyone in the nineteenth century ever kept records of the durations of performances of the Brahms Requiem, but those conductors who were active early in the twentieth century certainly seem to be among the slowest among the many who have recorded the work over the years. George Bernard Shaw – who hated the score – reserved his highest scorn for those who dragged out the music in an attempt to convey a sense of mourning and solemnity. This certainly seemed to include most the more eminent names during his era such as Stanford and Richter. On the other hand, some modern interpreters such as Sir Roger Norrington seem to be determined to go to the other extreme, speeding through the music in a manner which appears to be designed to minimise the sense of sorrow as much as possible. Joseph Fort makes a sensible compromise between these two extremes, and one imagines that a Victorian interpretation with the accompaniment provided by a non-sustaining instrument such as the piano would have done the same. The second movement may lack power, but it does not lack gravitas. Even a passage such as the description of the last trump in the sixth movement has plenty of excitement with the plunging pianos bringing out the string figurations to massive effect.
The solo singing also provides a considerable plus point for this new recording. The tightly focused tones of Marcus Farnsworth are well matched to Brahms’s high-lying lyricism without sounding at all lachrymose – as can sometimes be the danger in church performances – and Mary Bevan avoids the twin perils of fluttery vibrato or bleached treble-like tone which can vitiate the good intentions of singers in her one solo movement. The choir itself is not as large as most Victorian societies would have been, but it too sounds well focused. The acoustic could be more reverberant, but I imagine the intention here was to avoid a sound that was too reminiscent of a parish church. Indeed, if one overlooks the dubious claims to period authenticity, this is a surprisingly effective performance of the Brahms English Requiem (the title is not entirely quixotic, since it was by this name that the work was first given in concert by Macfarren) in its own right, well recorded. The booklet notes are entirely in English, but we are also given Brahms’s original German text alongside the sung version. Paul Corfield Godfrey
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