This is a visionary
approach to a jewel of choral repertoire:
one which makes us hear Brahms in a
whole new context. Accentus are unlike
most choirs, for each player is a virtuoso
in his or her own right. It’s much like
a chamber ensemble, where each soloist
contributes something distinctive to
the whole. Hence their status as "Choeur
de chambre". The result is singing
of exceptional quality; quite breathtaking.
It evoked for me, memories of a flock
of birds flying in perfect formation,
changing direction suddenly as a single
unit, gloriously soaring to the skies,
a beautiful force of Nature.
Brahms wrote the German
Requiem well aware of the German tradition
of a cappella singing, reaching
back to plain song, to Heinrich Schütz,
to Bach. The Lutheran tradition is leaner,
sparer than the Latin. Brahms specifically
wanted to write a requiem different
to others, one which expressed his views
as an agnostic, a humanist and a north
German. Notice, there’s no reference
to Christ. Brahms’s contemporaries joked
that Catholic Viennese needed a stretch
of imagination to fully appreciate it.
This version, scored by the composer
in 1869, may not have the lushness of
the full orchestral original, but it
makes up for this in purity. Scored
for two pianos, choir and solo voices,
it concentrates attention on text and
vocal interpretation, perhaps even closer
to that early Lutheran spirit of simplicity.
In doing so, they focus, with a lieder-like
intensity, on the texts Brahms himself
chose and translated, which do not necessarily
follow conventional liturgy.
The fertile creative
atmosphere of French baroque and early
music has produced some very exciting,
innovative work, and it carries through
to the Accentus approach. Accentus members
come from this background whose values
of precision and clarity are paramount.
There is little room here for the soft
edges that can appear in ordinary group
singing, for the blending of voices
is exact, and the conducting so sharp
that the group seems to operate as a
single organism. Accentus also specializes
in "modern" choral repertoire,
Poulenc, Messiaen etc. and this ethos
too, pays dividends in the way they
interpret Brahms, bringing a freshness
of vision and attack that the composer
might have valued. The luminosity of
the singing, the unadorned loveliness
of phrase and line, the clear-eyed focus
of direction, all contribute to this
wonderful revelation of the "soul"
of the Brahms Requiem.
As the booklet says
"Unlike most piano reductions,
this edition is no mere arrangement
of the orchestral parts ... it is in
fact a transcription of the whole work.
(including the vocal parts) into a piano
composition in its own right".
Indeed, as Brahms may have been considering
revising the Requiem before it became
too well known to change, it may well
represent Brahms’s later thoughts. The
difference is most striking in the piano
parts, of course, where the crucial
line of the music is articulated clearly
in the scoring. The playing, too is
exquisite, understated and yet definitive.
The vocal parts in some passages have
been built up for sonority, and the
choral singing is of a standard that
one almost forgets the richness of the
original. Truly, this is Brahms in a
whole new light.
The soloists are superb.
Sandrine Piau’s singing resounds with
a spirituality that moved me deeply.
Her recent CD of Debussy songs (Naïve
4982 - review following) shows what
she is capable of. I’ve rarely heard
Debussy sung with such clear appreciation
of form. She has a huge repertoire covering
the baroque and modern. Her recording
of the songs of Maurice Delage are excellent.
Recently I also heard Brigitte Engerer’s
solo recording of the Robert and Clara
Schumann Piano Concertos (L’empreinte
digitale ED 13146) with the Orchestre
de Cannes, conductor Phillipe Bender,
which also shows the quality of her
playing. There are many recording of
Accentus available: eleven can be found
and nineteen on www.amazon.co.uk.
The recent "Transcriptions"
(Astrée AV 4947) is fascinating.
It includes special transcriptions,
written for the choir, of Barber and
Mahler, and top quality performances
of lesser-known repertoire – one of
the best versions of Hugo Wolf’s choral
works. It is a very "different"
approach to choral singing, deserving
see also review
by John Phillips