The sweet atmosphere of the end of a warm summer day and the gorgeous smell of fresh hay welcomed the spectators in to the impressive 12th-century walls, full of memories, of the Cistercian abbey of Noirlac. The venue adapted surprisingly well to the ancestral sonorities of Brahms’ German Requiem.

Image by Constance Clara Guibert
Image by Constance Clara Guibert

Noirlac is a beautiful abbey in the very centre of France, nestled deep among fields, in a landscape both austere and fascinating. The concert took place in the abbatial church, between its huge pillars and grave architectural effects. In this ascetic perception of the world, we entered a unique purity.

Bernard Tétu chose a four-hand piano version written by Brahms. A discreet accompaniment would have been a real gift – at the opening, voices sound like a timeless reminiscence of Gregorian choirs – but Marie-Josèphe Jude and Jeff Cohen’s piano seemed not to be adequate for the mere seventeen singers, intimate atmosphere and fast tempi, and sounded more like a desperate pseudo-romantic soup than a rich, colourful presence. Even in the always surprising, brutal stop a few bars before the fugato in the sixth movement – when the last “wo ist dein Sieg?” rings out – the guilty pedal did not want to be cut, and lost this extremely striking impression for which fans of Otto Klemperer’s recording are accustomed to waiting.

Bernard Tétu also chose a narrow selection of tempi, merely fast, even in the so virtuous final fugato from the third movement (“Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand, und keine Qual rühret sie an”). Beyond the fact that the choir could have been far more captivating if singing unaccompanied, these unusual tempi seemed to make us walk with the processional choir, through nature – with all the birds singing the sopranos’ counterpoint in the church – through the whole Creation, without stopping, in suspended time. We know that the German Requiem was meant to be more humanist than liturgical; nevertheless, the Noirlac performance gave a wider dimension to Brahms’ masterwork. Audience and musicians seemed to be walking to Zion with songs and everlasting joy, in the landscapes of parables: in the famous second movement, “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras”, the energetic tempo brought us in this faithful walk, forgetting the desperate and romantic search for transcendence that can be heard in the majestic 1960s versions with 300 musicians.

We were then led by the deserving choir – seventeen well-trained singers, despite some badly tuned high notes among the tenors, several late basses, and the echo in the abbey, from which Bernard Tétu got immediate nuances, explosive sforzandos, precise timbres — but also by the very expressive soprano Yuree Jang and the dynamic bass Jacques Bona. The former’s voice was fully suited to all Brahms’ colours, both mighty and intimate, in a romantic but sober personal expression – sometimes too low in the attacks. Unfortunately suffering from the mighty piano, the latter took the role of a predicator, exhorting the audience to listen, leading the whole procession, and announcing the good book of God to the pilgrims.

Instead of quenching our fascination, this German Requiem made us join a close community, walking through the fields and the walls of the Cistercian abbey. Even without perfection, even with approximations, music always wins – making us reach a supreme kind of happiness.