The journey Birmingham Festival Choral Society (BFCS) have taken to reach this point hasn’t been an easy one. It was only recently they discovered that the Lichfield Cathedral Chorus were also singing Brahms’ A German Requiem in the cathedral two weeks earlier (I think we’ve all agreed this was a fault on the part of the cathedral itself). Despite this, a good number of audience gathered to hear the concert, the nave looking amply filled facing the west front.
The programme opened with Brahms’ motet Geistiches Lied Op. 30. It was perhaps a tricky piece to open with, requiring a delicate touch and a good degree of control. The choir needed more support from the organ which, halfway back in the nave, was not terribly audible. This would have enabled them to really sing out and project the beautiful Brahms harmonies further into the building. That said, it was well-managed with some real sensitivity to the text.
The motet was followed by a piano duet arrangement of two of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances: no. 5 in F# minor; and no. 8 in A minor. These were expertly played by both accompanists, and although the crispness of the rhythms is a little lost within the acoustic of the cathedral, the audience loved them. For me, they felt a little out of place within a predominantly sacred programme, but nevertheless, they gave the choir chance to have a sit down before tackling the Finzi.
Finzi’s Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice was a glorious end to the first half of the programme. The choir really came into their own, projecting the sound far into the nave. Once again, they could have benefited from more support from the organ, but I appreciate this is always a difficult one to judge within the slightly strange cathedral acoustics. It was a treat to hear the Finzi two weeks running, and even after tonight’s performance, I wouldn’t tire of hearing it again. Soloists, Louise Wayman and James Davies blended beautifully with the choir, but for me, the soloist who stood head and shoulders above the rest, was the tenor who, so far as I could tell, stepped from within the ranks of the choir itself. The choir gave a heartfelt performance, injecting some moments of real tenderness, alongside the drama of the central section.
The centrepiece of the programme was Brahms’ A German Requiem, sung in German. Accompanied by Brahms’ own two-piano arrangement, the BFCS navigated the score with great skill. It is not an easy piece to perform, for as the programme notes state, it is Brahms’:
‘longest and most grandly scored composition’.
That said, the two-piano arrangement of the accompaniment offers a more intimate experience than the full orchestra, though of course, it is never quite possible to capture all the orchestral colours and textures.
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The accompaniment was sensitive, and the soloists were the perfect match for the choir. The choir sang with real enthusiasm, though just occasionally, the top notes in all parts needed a little bit of lift. The 4th movement ‘How lovely are your dwelling places’ is, of course, the most famous, and the choir took centre stage here, the beautifully close and dense harmonies shining through.
Understandably, by the final movement, they were beginning to tire a little, but nevertheless the performance ended confidently, and as the final chord echoed into the distance, the audience applauded warmly.
All in all, a pleasant evening of music. For me, the Finzi was the standout piece, not least, for the tenor soloist…but then, as a Finzi fan, I’m a bit biased. Brahms’ A German Requiem itself was navigated confidently, and the combination of choir, soloists and accompaniment brought together an ensemble showing real enthusiasm and commitment.
BRAHMS: A GERMAN REQUIEM
Lichfield Cathedral, Saturday 2nd July, 2022, 7:30pm
Louise Wayman soprano
James Davies baritone
Kevin Gill organ and piano
Stephen Hargreaves piano
Birmingham Festival Choral Society
David Wynne conductor
Future Birmingham Festival Choral Society concerts:
Saturday 5th November, 7:30pm, The Ruddock Performing Arts Centre