Brahms’ major choral work, his German Requiem, was premiered in Bremen on 10 April 1868 and helped seal his international reputation. Two aspects of the Zeitgeist strike me as especially significant in understanding why this piece is different from what had gone before. Less than a decade earlier, with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the first serious doubts about God-given creation began to emerge amongst the European chattering classes of the day and will certainly have affected the agnostic composer. Back then Germany as an entity did not yet exist, and both language and music were as important in the creation of the nation-state there as in Italy. Importantly, the texts that Brahms chose from Luther’s German bible placed the individual in the here-and-now rather than in the life beyond.

Paavo Järvi © Ixi Chen
Paavo Järvi
© Ixi Chen

As if to transcend any national boundaries the Estonian Paavo Järvi directed this special concert by linking different nationalities: the orchestral ensemble was the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie (itself based in Bremen), the choir was from Latvia, the soprano soloist was Romanian and the baritone German. It made sense to commemorate the 150th anniversary in the very place where it was first performed, namely Bremen’s cathedral. We know that the première was a success, and yet after decades of hearing this work mostly in secular buildings I still find it a struggle to reconcile the intricacies of the score with the lack of definition when hearing it in an ecclesiastical space. I suspect George Bernard Shaw’s judgement that the work was “patiently borne only by the corpse” must have gained credence from the generalised wash of sound common in so many church venues, especially when coupled with once-common dirge-like tempi.

This Requiem is above all a test of stamina for choral singers. The 60-strong Latvian State Choir produced a compact body of sound graced by a pure legato line that extended through all the movements. What was difficult to achieve in the very reverberant acoustic was an incisiveness, a sharpness of attack which would have given the moments of drama a clearer focus. My major niggle concerns the words: the Latvians could have been singing in any of a dozen languages, given the apparent lack of attention applied to the articulation and meaning of the German text.

The solo voices fared far better. Matthias Goerne could almost have been an Old Testament prophet himself. From his first sombre and richly resonant entry in the third movement, he made every single word tell. He captured the essential mystery inherent at the start of the sixth movement, negotiating the wide stretch of tessitura effortlessly, and produced a frisson for the phrase “in the twinkling of an eye”. No less impressive was Valentina Farcaş in the heart of the work, the fifth movement that offers the greatest sense of consolation. She displayed a remarkable evenness of tone in all registers, with a creamy top that supplied the necessary balm and salve. At the end of the movement, when analgesic properties are writ large, her silvery tones merged seamlessly into the entry of the solo clarinet and the ensuing wind choir.

In the stark and spare surroundings of a tall Romanesque-Gothic building it was always going to be difficult to do full justice to the inner voices and dramatic power of Brahms’ score. Järvi often attempted to enhance the latter by stepping up the tempo, most noticeably towards the end of the second movement, and later by setting up a whirlwind of sound in the fugal passages that gave added emphasis to “O death, where is thy sting?”. But the swinging, marching rhythms quickly lost themselves in the large interior spaces, at least heard from my central position towards the front of the nave. A lot of splendid detail simply failed to register – the minatory horns that can so easily chill the marrow in the second movement or the trumpets in the following movement that didn’t quite crown the textures. The timpani often sounded little more than a rumble and, rather surprisingly, no use was made of the organ. It was left to the lower strings – dark, woody and Stygian in mien – to create moments of intense atmosphere and inward reflection at the outset or whenever the dynamic levels dropped and the choral contribution was reined back. Elsewhere the 34 strings beavered away under Järvi’s resolute direction without much of an impact.

In Brahms’ original design there were just six movements before he added what is now the fifth. In biblical terms seven is the number representing completeness and perfection, both physical and spiritual. Numerologists see the number as designating a search for Truth, humanity’s fundamental need to find depth, meaning and spiritual connection. In a strife-filled world that essential connection, and the message that Brahms sends out, are needed more than ever.