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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ein Deutsches Requiem (1868) [60.03]
Geistliches Lied (1856) [4.36]
Clare Seaton (soprano)
Colin Campbell (baritone)
The Vasari Singers/Jeremy Backhouse
rec. St. Jude’s Hampstead, London NW1, 24-26 October 2003
GUILD MUSIC GMCD7302 [64.39]

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On this new disc the Vasari Singers under Jeremy Backhouse, try to take us into Brahms’s parlour. He produced this chamber version of the Requiem so that it could be run through in domestic circumstances. Whether this sort of adaptation should be used for commercial performance really depends on how convincing the performance is.

You can see why conductors would want to perform this version: it allows them to bring the greater subtlety and control of a chamber choir to a larger-scale work. I imagine that many conductors who have worked on the orchestral version, dream of working with a choir every one of whose members is completely attuned to his requirements.

So it is on this disc, where the Vasari Singers provide Backhouse with a wonderful choral clarity of sound. Their phrasing is invariably sensitive and rarely have I heard this work so beautifully shaped. With tempos on the brisk side, this is a light, bright version of the work.

With composers’ own piano arrangements of their large-scale pieces, it is sometimes possible to gain insights into how they viewed the original work; what they choose to include, omit or highlight can be interesting. But too much of this arrangement sounds like dark rumbling; no amount of pianistic finesse from Jeremy Filsell and Roderick Chadwick can disguise that rather routine nature of the adaptation. Frankly the sustained dark orchestral tones which are common in this work cry out for the sort of creative re-working which Liszt provided for some of his piano transcriptions.

Talented though the pianists are, the pianos are no substitute for the orchestra when it comes to giving the sense of intertwining orchestral lines. In passages such as All Flesh is Grass, this version lacks the feeling of orchestral lines entwining around the choral ones. Perhaps this is something to do with the recording, as the pianos sound rather in the background at all times. The chorus seems to dominate most of the time. It does not help that, in the louder passages, the piano inevitably starts to sound percussive, thus radically changing the overall sound. In the final movement, the overall effect starts to sound disconnected as the choral phrases lack the overall support of the cushion of orchestral sound.

What I missed also was the sheer weight of choral sound, the magical effect of hundreds of voices singing softly. It does not help that the Vasari Singers’ sound is clear and bright; fine in earlier music but not ideal in this dark-hued piece. The singers are also rather taxed by the piece, though by and large they cope admirably. Perhaps the weakest element is the tenor line, where Backhouse’s tenors seem unable to deliver the real heft required by some of this music; even in this smaller-scale version they sound under-powered.

In a Gramophone review some years ago John Steane described one recording of this version of the Requiem as sounding like a final choral rehearsal with piano, the orchestra being expected next week. Steane went on to praise the version from Accentus Chamber Choir on Naïve for sounding like real chamber music. The Vasari Singers have not quite managed to do this and the shadow of the rehearsal room hangs over this performance.

Their baritone soloist, Colin Campbell, is similarly afflicted and sings his part as if trying out for the full orchestral version. You never get the feeling that he wants to produce a chamber version and as a result his part sounds over-projected.

Soprano Clare Seaton has too fruity a voice for this performance; perhaps she would work well with orchestra but here I longed for something far more silvery. It does not help that her voice goes a bit steely in the higher reaches.

The choir also include a version of the Geistliches Lied with piano accompaniment. Perhaps the smaller scale of this work and the very fleetness and lightness of the choral writing mean that it seems to fit the performance better.

I like the idea behind this recording: doing chamber versions of major works can often shed new and interesting lights on the pieces. But on this disc, the piano arrangement is simply not interesting in its own right and the performance does not quite achieve the chamber textures that are required.

There are other versions of this arrangement in the catalogue and you might be well advised to try listening to some of them before deciding which you should buy.

Robert Hugill

There are other versions of this arrangement and you might be well advised to try listening to some of them before deciding which you should buy. ... see Full Review


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