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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Johannes BRAHMS (1833 – 1897)
Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (London version) (1869)
Sandrine Piau (soprano), Stéphane Degaut (baritone)
Brigitte Engerer and Boris Berezovsky (pianos)
Accentus Chamber Choir/Laurence Equilbey
recorded Cité de la musique in Paris in June and July 2003. DDD.
NAIVE V 4956 [64’54"]

 

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 on www.crotchet.co.uk, 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 much attention.

Anne Ozorio

see also review by John Phillips

 



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