Traditionally a requiem is sung for the repose of the souls of the dead. Even though he was deeply affected by the death of his mother just after he had turned 30, when Brahms came to write his German Requiem he was thinking as much about the here-and-now and the tribulations of a purely earthly existence. “Inside, I never laugh,” he once said about himself, “Life robs us of more than death does.” One of the virtues of this performance of his largest single work, by the Constanza Chorus under their Musical Director Joanna Bywater, was that the misty-grey melancholy that often envelops all seven movements was largely kept at bay.

Edward Grint © Jan Rebuschat
Edward Grint
© Jan Rebuschat

The work begins and ends in the consolatory mood of F major, and the very opening words “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted” speak of a warm and comforting hand to support the living rather than a stern admonitory finger pointing to hellfire and damnation. Bywater shaped the choral contributions – and it is the collective voice that provides such a strong architectural framework for what is still often seen as a “difficult” work – with due regard for  dynamic shadings, especially in the second and longest movement where “For all flesh is as grass” was underpinned on its return by the beating insistence of the timpani. It is unfortunate, however, that English amateur choirs have recurring problems with German consonants. These carry the weight and colour of the words and need to be handled with considerable care, if meaning is not to be lost.

This was happily not the case with Edward Grint, whose rich and incisive baritone was alive to the vibrancy of the language, not least in the sixth movement’s “We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye”. Brahms surely wanted a clement, angelic sound for the soprano in the fifth movement, where she makes her only appearance. Cheryl Enever’s voice was arguably a little too operatic here: the line needed to float with a controlled buoyancy, especially when she reached the words of Isaiah, “As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you.”

The scoring of this great choral work is itself worthy of note. The upper strings are silent in the first movement, where darker, earthier sounds predominate. Later, both trombones and tuba give weight and colour to those surges of dramatic energy which take us out of resigned introspection and into the storm-tossed currents of daily travail. The modest string complement of the London Mozart Players allowed for considerable transparency in the colouring of the individual movements, for example in the opening and closing movements where the harp – used only very rarely by Brahms – adds to the sense of radiant serenity. If overall this performance was lacking in the last ounce of tonal refinement, both chorally and orchestrally, it nevertheless succeeded in conveying a great deal of life-affirming immanence.

Those who translate musical titles often have much to answer for. The German word “Schicksal” incorporates the opposite poles of negativity and positivity dichotomized in the English words “fate” and “destiny”. Yet it is the former, not the latter, which characterises the choral piece that Brahms wrote a few years after his Requiem. With its dark tonalities, including C minor and D minor, the Schicksalslied shares the sombre mood of the Alto Rhapsody from the same period, and after a brief orchestral introduction it is the alto line that anchors the work unmistakably in tonal shadows. It is an entirely secular piece, based on words by the lyric poet and thinker Friedrich Hölderlin, who was himself much influenced by the ancient Greek perspective on humanity’s tragic fall. With a middle section suggesting the tormented human condition, “like water thrown from cliff top to cliff top, down into the unknown for years”, it chimes in with the gloomy recognition in the Requiem that human existence is entirely governed by the dark forces of fate. Bywater and her chorus chose to stress the moments of quiet submission rather than the anguish contained in these powerful words.

The concert had opened with a considerable rarity, one of those occasional pieces which see the light of day and then vanish into the mists of time. Schumann’s concert overture Rheinweinlied was written at the end of his life for the 1853 Lower Rhine Music Festival. As the title suggests, it owes its origins to a Rhenish drinking song, with a short tenor solo, here taken by William Petter, and a choral contribution underlining the virtues of the vine. Entirely appropriate as a curtain-raiser for a choral concert, it suffered from slightly four-square conducting. Schumann’s string figurations needed to dance and scamper more in line with the festive mood. The singing, however, was suitably lusty.