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Radio: German Requiem \ Brahms \ BBC Symphony Orchestra \ Bělohlávek \ BBC Radio 3

March 20, 2010

I like to indulge in Brahms’ carbohydrate-rich symphonic sound as much as the next person, but I do have my limits. Friday night’s live broadcast from the Barbican of the German Requiem did rather test me to those limits.

Self-indulgent as I am, even I don’t like it when I’m given no choice but to wallow.

And, judging by the multiple S’s ricocheting around the hall at the end of many of the long phrases at points during the work, I suspect the chorus may have felt the same way as they gasped for breath. Despite that, they did an admirable job. The combined efforts of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus just didn’t move me particularly.

And Brahms’ German Requiem normally does move me.

The opening pianissimo of the first movement – Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they that mourn) –  in the orchestra with his scattering of crushing minor seconds establishes brief moment of anguish and expectation. The stage is set. The moment is prepared. We know its going to be tough. But there is hope. 

But fail to pay due attention to the dynamics and the entire effect can be something quite leaden, something I felt towards the end of the movement. Everything felt just that little bit clunky. It just lacked spirit.

The usually agonisingly beautiful second movement – Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras (For all that is flesh is as grass) – didn’t do much to allay my fears for the rest of the performance, I’m sorry to say. Brahms scores this movement Langsam, marschmäßig (Slowly, marching). It was certainly slow, but more of a reluctant trudge rather than a march. It had a similar effect on the chorus at the end of long phrases with enough of a smattering of strange intonation at the end of the movement to make the right hand side of my body go into a mild spasm.

I suspect it was this which resulted in me not maintaining close attention for the rest of the performance.

Things did improve during the fugue in the sixth movement – Tod, wo ist dein Stachel? (Oh death, where is thy sting?) – when the chorus were able to show their mettle. So too during some suitably lush moments in the final movement – denn ihre Werke folgen (then they may rest from their labours). But even if my palpable sense of relief at hearing things perk up a bit led to me question whether I’d just been a miserable arse in search of something to blog about today, I still felt disappointed about the whole affair.

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4 Comments
  1. David England permalink

    Sorry, I’ve only just spotted this.

    As a meeker of the chorus. I actually found this the most exhilarating performance of the Brahms German Requiem I have encountered. I entirely accept your point that it may not have word from the listener’s point of view.

    Were the chorus really gasping for breath? I just breathe where I need to, and always hoped no one would notice!

    • No need to apologise for only have just spotted this. That’s the beauty of the web you see .. stuff is always there. 😉

      I can’t really account for individual breathing patterns. I think that falls outside the scope of the blog post. But I will – of course – keep close attention next time.

  2. David England permalink

    As a MEMBER of the chorus, allow me to apologise for my lousy typing then!

    I entirely accept your point that it may not have WORKED from the listener’s point of view.

    • Your apology is unnecessary but appreciated nonetheless. As a member of BBC staff I’m sure <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/journalism/skills/writing/"there's a training course we could put you on.

      Tee Hee. 😉

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