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Schubert and Brahms: Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano), Ulrich Staerk (piano) Gerd Grochowski (baritone)   Preston Cecilian Choral Society, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra,  Claus Peter Flor (conductor), Guild Hall, Preston, Lancashire, 9.3.2011 (MC)

Schubert : Suleika II, D.717; Du bist die Ruh, D.776; Alinde, D.901
Brahms : Wir wandelten, Op.96/2; Sommerabend, Op.85/1; Geheimnis, Op.71/3;

Wie Melodien zieht es, Op.105/1; Wiegenlied, Op.49/4 Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano), Ulrich Staerk (piano)

Brahms : A German Requiem for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra, Op.45

We have all heard of the saying 'a game of two halves'. This concert at Preston Guild Hall had two halves but what a stark contrast each half was for the audience. The curtain raiser was a Lieder recital of Schubert and Brahms. Then came a performance of A German Requiem, Brahms' most renowned choral work for large forces.

The well chosen Lieder recital comprised of three Schubert songs followed by five from Brahms. Settings from various sources included Rückert, Heine and folk poetry from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Soloist Dam-Jensen is a Danish soprano who has carved out an impressive international career for herself since winning the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 1993. The Guild Hall could never be described as an intimate recital room and not surprisingly the voice of Dam-Jensen took a couple of songs to reach optimum. Initially accompanist Ulrich Staerk was having trouble keeping to the same path as Dam-Jensen but the situation soon improved delivering a satisfying partnership.

A delightful Lieder performer, Dam-Jensen was in fine voice producing fresh and appealing tones with an august diction. Most comfortable in her mid-high range the soprano has a moderate vibrato that never intrudes. I enjoyed Dam-Jensen's storytelling and her characterisation in the Schubert song Alinde abundant with lyricism over a mildly rocking piano accompaniment. Dam-Jensen was able to offer plenty of expression ranging from the euphoric in Brahms's Wir wandelten (We wandered together) to the tender and soothing relaxation of the well known Wiegenlied more commonly known as Brahms' Lullaby or Cradle Song. With the soprano performing at her peak I was rather disappointed that the Lieder recital had to end.

It was like attending a completely different concert after the interval with the Guild Hall stage now full to bursting with Liverpool Philharmonic players and the seventy plus strong Preston Cecilian Choral Society. Brahms' longest composition in performance, A German Requiem is generally acknowledged as his greatest choral work. Work on the Requiem occupied Brahms for several years. Whether it was the demise, whilst incarcerated in an asylum, of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann in 1856, or the death of his mother in 1865 or a combination of both that provided the inspiration for this masterwork is uncertain. The first performance of the completed Requiem was given at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1869. Instead of setting the customary Latin Catholic text Brahms arranged his own text mainly from the Lutheran Bible. Rather than a solemn requiem mass for the dead this is a mass to comfort the living that the dead have left behind.

It was easy to feel compassion for the two soloists who spent the majority of their time sitting waiting their turn rather than singing in the Requiem. Clear and reliable singing from soprano Inger Dam-Jensen in Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (Ye now are sorrowful) was sweet toned and reverential. German baritone Gerd Grochowski had involvement in two movements. In the darkly hued Herr, lehre doch mich (Lord, make me to know mine end) his voice lacked heft and impact at times overpowered by the orchestra. Against the initial lighter orchestral weight in Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt (Here on earth we have we no lasting home) Grochowski was able to rise to the challenge singing with devotional respect.

An inspiring group able to sustain prolonged phrases with resolute vigour, the Preston Cecilian Choral Society have an appealing tone and admirable unity. Well drilled by their Italian musical director Marco Fanti, it was hard to quibble about the choir's committed performances of the two best known movements of the Requiem both for chorus and orchestra: Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras (For all flesh is as grass) and Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely is thy dwelling place).

Keeping his forces tightly clasped together conductor Claus Peter Flor blessed Brahms's score with a sincere and warm hearted performance. The Liverpool Phil continues to impress with typically crisp playing that balanced the score's required ingredients of strength and pathos. Overall the string sound was as warm and comforting as glowing coals in a brazier. Especially striking were the rich and resonant double basses and cellos providing deep and voluminous bedrock for the orchestra. The high strings playing hurriedly in movement three Herr, lehre doch mich sounded a touch disorganised, but there was dedicated playing from the wholesome brass section who sensibly eschewed any tendency for overindulgence. The woodwind would pass the most rigorous inspection, which is no surprise when playing alongside the sovereign talents of the principal oboe and clarinet.

Michael Cookson


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