Harry Christophers brought his Sixteen to Manchester for a night of deeply romantic choral music at The Bridgewater Hall. Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem was a foreseeable success, but the seldom-heard Vocal Quartets, settings of Sternau, Schiller, Daumer and Goethe, were a delightful addition to the programme.

Harry Christophers © Marco Borggreve
Harry Christophers
© Marco Borggreve

The first set of Brahms quartets, Op. 64, combined wistful loss, nostalgia and humour superbly. There was easy warmth, matched by tight control, in Sternau’s “An die Heimat” and Schiller’s “Der Abend”. In the latter the singing seemed perfectly attuned to the imagery of refreshing dew and tired horses, making for a very convincing effect. Great pleasure was taken in the third and final song, “Fragen”, a dialogue between a lovestruck heart and logical mind, and was a marked contrast from the preceding material. Diction suddenly became more firmly articulated and the phrasing was wonderfully springy and mischievous.

By contrast, the second set of quartets, Op. 92, was more sombre throughout. The evocative imagery was as clear as before, but there was more time here to appreciate the sublime balance and communal awareness in the singing. The Sixteen sang with 22 singers all evening, but in neither set of quartets did the filling-out of textures threaten to disrupt Brahms’ writing. They interweaved with the ease of a simple quartet, Christophers himself shaping and highlighting lines attentively throughout. He would frequently wander towards one side of the group in search of greater power, and his singers responded each time to beautiful effect.

The third song in this set of four, “Abendlied”, found an intriguing and delightful balance between such lines as “Joy... melting away” and “Peacefully does night struggle with day” and the light, dancing music. Like the first quartets, we here finished with a question, a stately, grand conclusion which relaxed into a gently smiling close. Both quartets were given wonderful performances, and the inclusion of a solo piano interlude of excerpts from Schumann’s Waldszenen was a pleasing palate-freshener rather than a mere concert-filler. The cycle, normally consisting of nine “forest scenes”, was condensed to three charming highlights full of natural grace by pianist John Reid.

Arguably Brahms’ magnum opus, his Deutsches Requiem was written as a turn away from the formal requiem style of Mozart. It is conceivably the least religious requiem in common performance, avoiding any mention of Christ and drawn from the Brahms’ favoured parts of Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible. Brahms’ admission that he toyed with replacing “German” in the title with “Human” confirms that this is very much a requiem for the people rather than an exaltation of God.

Tonight it was heard in the composer’s own arrangement for piano duet accompaniment. At no point did thoughts longingly turn to the full orchestral version, and the piano reduction brought out harmonies which are otherwise often lost. Pianists Christopher Glynn and John Reid showed a close knowledge of the work in their ability to work around the singing, and there were a few moments where the sound of the piano created an effect an orchestra could not hope to achieve.

Christophers’ reading was highly personal from the outset, and again the singing was very well matched to the text. In the first movement he accelerated towards and articulated the words of Psalm 126, “Reap in joy”, from an otherwise serene atmosphere. He also drew from his small forces a surprising fullness of sound in the broader choral writing of the second movement, but it was the magnificent pianissimo afforded by the small choir which was most pleasing. Clarity and emphasis on the text were maintained in the louder passages of the sixth movement, where there was a driving, joyful unfolding of lines from each other to a jubilant close. The ensuing hush of the finale was less retiringly soft than many initially, but faded to a lullaby-like close of exquisite delicacy.

Both soloists, baritone Eamonn Dougan and soprano Julie Cooper, sang very well. Dougan was imposing and characterful in the third movement and Cooper showed superb control and purity of tone (with tasteful, minimal vibrato) in the fifth. She was soft to the point of modesty, and the movement was the most beautiful passage of the evening.