Starting a concert season with two works with Requiem in the title might sound rather gloomy, but not when one of them is Brahms’ beautiful, consolatory German Requiem, and particularly not when it’s placed in the hands of Thomas Zehetmair, who unfailing brings out the warmth and humanity of Brahms’ music from the musicians of the Royal Northern Sinfonia.

Thomas Zehetmair © Dan Brady
Thomas Zehetmair
© Dan Brady

In a short programme, the Brahms was preceded by the ten-minute Requiem for strings, written by Toru Takemitsu in 1957 in memory of another Japanese composer, Fumio Hayasaka. Stravinsky heard the piece whilst visiting Japan and his praise brought Takemitsu to international attention. The subdued opening grew seamlessly from silence, Zehetmair keeping the volume right down and allowing the lovely viola solo to shine out of the texture. Takemitsu’s work is unsettling, uncertain, and ends without any tonal resolution. If Takemitsu’s work questions death, Brahms beautiful German Requiem offers one man’s suggestion of an answer. Brahms was in mourning for his mother when he wrote it, and instead of setting the hellfire and judgement of the Latin requiem mass, he constructed his own text from passages of the Lutheran Bible, one that offers quiet consolation to those who mourn, and that reflects pragmatically on death as something that must come to everyone.

Thomas Zehetmair’s approach brought out every positive element in Brahms’ work. The opening of the second movement reminds us that “all flesh is as grass…the grass withers and the flower fades” and in the hands of most conductors this passage is charged with terror with the pounding timpani heralding doom. Not so with Zehetmair: those sinister drumbeats were taken right down and the gentle warmth of the brass turned the whole passage into a sad statement of fact, not a threat. The first movement too was gentle and affectionate, with clean unfussy singing that blossomed on the promise of joy to come after the mourning.

The German Requiem is a demanding sing, with long fugal passages that require unflagging energy, and hardly any breaks for the choir. The Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia delivered beautiful warm singing throughout, with clearly enunciated German. The long fugue of the sixth movement, with the words “Lord you are worthy to receive all praise, honour and glory” was a cry of triumph after the work’s only direct mention of the last judgement. The requiem’s most famous movement, “How lovely are thy dwellings” was a lovely flowing line of melody. Thomas Zehetmair doesn’t often conduct the chorus though, and at times it showed. In one or two passages, the singing was a little too precise and mechanical, there were odd moments of awkwardness and the choral balance was not perfect (it’s not often I say this, but the altos were sometimes too loud).

Brahms added the fifth movement, for soprano solo, a few years after the first version of the Requiem, and this movement more than any other speaks of Brahms’ own loss, as the woman’s voice sings “you now have sorrow; but I shall see you again and your heart shall rejoice”. Soprano Elizabeth Atherton sang this movement extremely quietly, and simply, giving it heartrending poignancy. The other soloist, bass Matthew Brook was also excellent, powerful throughout the range and with particularly rich low notes. The bass soloist pleads God to teach us to know that we all have an end, and his words are echoed by the choir; Matthew Brook gave this passage a firm assurance, and with the interesting effect of a master teaching his students who repeat and accept his lesson.

Although Zehetmair kept the brass and timpani sharply reined in for the second movement, the orchestra were allowed off the leash for a really exciting sixth movement, when the trumpet sounds and the dead shall be raised. There was lovely flowing string playing in the quieter movements, particularly in “How lovely are thy dwellings” and the flute solo in the final movement shone through the serene choral singing.

As he did throughout last year with his symphony cycle, Zehetmair’s imaginative take on the German Requiem made me see another much-loved Brahms work in a whole new light, more positive and humanist than any other performance I’ve heard, and probably closer than many to Brahms’s spiritual intentions.

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