Schumann Lieder and Brahms Requiem

…an unusual but highly successful piece of programming that found Bristol Choral Society at their usual best.

**** Martin Firth, Bristol Post

In a novel but successful experiment, Bristol Choral Society’s concert paired piano accompanied Schumann Lieder with Brahms’s Requiem. The latter work is always one difficult to ‘pair’ with another work. It barely runs for 70 minutes, so a matching work is so often unsatisfactory in terms of suitability – both of length and musical stature.

Baritone soloist Eamonn Dougan chose three contrasted songs from different periods in Schumann’s lifetime and all introduced by him – a welcome and informative departure. The chamber music nature of the songs was slightly out of kilter with the hall’s ambience however, and Eamonn struggled at times with his lower notes (as in the Requiem also). Nonetheless, he produced a fine and focused sound in the upper register. Pianist Steven Kings not only accompanied with supreme sensitivity but also added four movements from Schumann’s Kinderszenen – again, played with immense musical authority.

Brahms deeply introspective Requiem stands aside from the more demonstrative interpretations by Verdi, Britten or Berlioz. Here we rarely witness spectacular vocal or instrumental fireworks; instead the mood is often one of quiet reflection. On paper the choral parts seem quite innocuous; in practice the choral parts are both difficult and extremely taxing. Bristol Choral Society, despite depleted numbers, coped very well in the main, with finely judged nuances of dynamics and their characteristic warmth of tone. Sopranos were (understandably) slightly off the note from time to time in the highest and most intractable notes; the tenors too, seemed awed by their solo entries but coped well in the ensemble.

There were too many highlights to list, but O How Amiable Art Thy Dwellings was very impressive, though curiously described as a ‘waltz’ in the programme notes. Ye Now Have Sorrow was also delicately realised by choir and orchestra, with the soloist, Claire Boulter; here her tone was bright and convincing, if not quite ethereal as the movement requires, and an occasional excess of vibrato obscured some of the more anguished chromaticisms.

In the Requiem the choir were capably accompanied by the British Sinfonietta. The reduction in string members may be a cold, hard economic fact of life, but given the intensely ‘dark’ string writing in places, it was a pity that the few cellos and basses had to cope with meagre resources. The upper strings too, would have benefited from several extra desks of players. The organ was noticeable by its absence – why when we have such a magnificent instrument in the hall? It was a pity too, that the timpanist chose soft sticks for the opening of the second movement: the vital triplets, which no-one else has, were muffled and lacked definition and the all-important menace.

Both orchestra and choir were admirably directed by Hilary Campbell, whose tempos, slower than usual, demonstrated a conductor who had thought carefully about the interpretation. So an unusual but highly successful piece of programming that found Bristol Choral Society at their usual best.