Principal Guest Conductor Markus Stenz conducted a pair of very different works by fellow Germans, both featuring a strong nod towards Britain. The music spoke for itself, with a beautiful and original Brahms Requiem the highlight of the evening.

Markus Stenz, © MolinaVisuals
Markus Stenz,
© MolinaVisuals

The title of Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem is quite significant. The composer commented that he might have named it A Human Requiem, but the final title betrays the same intention: this is a requiem for the people, written in the native tongue (from the Lutheran Bible) as a break from the Latin requiems already in existence. It was interesting, then, that the Hallé chose to perform the great work in English. Neither the exact reasons nor instigators of this were made clear, but it certainly showed quite a sense of open-mindedness from the German, Stenz to break from tradition in this way. Purists might call the translation sacrilegious, but others might argue that it aided the composer’s intentions of speaking directly to the public. In the event, it came off very successfully.

The large Hallé Choir sang from a different translation to that given in the programme, but for the most part it worked well. The English was subtle enough to avoid any major disruption of vocal lines, and the considerable beauty of their soft singing made for a particularly lovely beginning and end to the work. The benefits of singing in the vernacular became clear early on in the first movement, when the alignment of the more animated passages with the words “Shall reap in joy” was made quite explicit. Stenz’ ability to make possibly rough corners such as this blend with the wider context of a movement was constantly pleasing. There were no sharp edges, but nor was there any threat of blandness.

Tempos, in general, were quicker than we often hear, and textures full and warm without stodginess. The second movement’s three-in-a-bar pulse was given a good sense of life by the brisk tempo. Within this the strings produced some fabulously sleek legato and the horn calls were solid and bright. In the triumphant “But the word of the Lord endureth forever” passage, the interleaving brass and choral lines unfolded with great clarity. Stenz directed the chorus very attentively, neatly highlighting details such as this. The louder choral passages generally came off well, though the relatively small tenor section inevitably struggled to match the others in places.

Carolyn Sampson produced some beautiful singing, notably in a well-balanced partnership with the violins. She showed excellent control at soft dynamics, with tasteful application of vibrato. Baritone Benedict Nelson was a last-minute replacement for an unwell Neal Davies. He sang with a magnificently full voice, particularly strong in the higher passages of the third movement and in the animated sixth movement. There were some joyous moments from all forces here, culminating in a magical ending and pause before the final movement. The playing and singing in “Blessed are the dead” was softly reflective, but not overly sentimental. Stenz pushed towards the final, warm chord with minimal slowing. A pleasing silent pause followed before an enthusiastic reception for all involved.

The German Requiem in English was preceded by Wolfgang Rihm’s 2013 A Tribute, the eighth work in his Über die Linie cycle. The twenty-minute piece was jointly commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society and the Britten-Pears Foundation to commemorate the RPS bicentenary and the Britten centenary, and was premiered by the Hallé with Sir Mark Elder four months ago. Benjamin Britten has been labelled as the recipient of the ‘tribute’, but Rihm comments that it is directed more towards British music in general.

There are few overt references to British music, though; indeed, there are some quite exotic passages in which percussionists dash between steel drums and an array of tuned gongs. The frequent major second intervals make for thick textures in the opening material, in which all sections showed themselves entirely assured of their own role. There was a superbly played prolonged and high solo for principal horn, also interacting well with cor anglais and orchestra leader. The final bars came to a well-controlled pianissimo close on a high violin harmonic, though this was rather obscured by a sudden outburst of unstifled coughing around the hall. For such a modern piece, though, it was surprisingly well received. I would certainly be keen to hear it again, and the partnership with Brahms’ choral masterpiece was a brilliant bit of programming.