Brahms and more Brahms! (You can't have too much of a good thing)
Monday 13th June, 2016
What a year it has been so far for Three Spires Singers! Since September, we've performed Verdi's Requiem with a huge orchestra and an awesome line-up of soloists; Handel's Messiah at St Endellion Church, with the period instruments of Devon Baroque and four incredible soloists; and during March a programme of Mozart, Haydn and Durante when the soprano soloist singing to my left had been on stage with a lead role at Covent Garden the previous evening!
The committee has decided to push the boat out once again for our summer concert. This will feature Brahms' second symphony and his German Requiem. The second symphony, from 1877, is a desert island piece for me. I've known it for most of my life and cannot tell you how much I'm looking forward to conducting it. For me, it just "connects" in a way that only a very small number of pieces do. A few notes of the "big tune" in the slow movement are enough to transport me heavenward. As always with Brahms, the music is not just beautiful "in the moment" (though it is easy simply to wallow in the exquisite orchestral textures and sweeping tunes); its real power comes from the architecture. The large-scale way Brahms allows his ideas to unfold is carefully controlled, and one idea grows organically into the next. It is substantial music of the most soul-nourishing kind from a truly great genius.
The German Requiem seems to divide opinion and I wonder if this is because it does not set out to do what most requiems set out to do. Rather than turning to the conventional texts of the Church, Brahms has bypassed them and gone straight to the Bible to select odd verses from here and there that allow him to craft his own message - a message of comfort to the living, rather than a musical attempt to make sense of the Church's doctrine concerning what happens when we die (in this respect, it's the opposite of Gerontius, not that that's a requiem of course).
Most requiem settings are intended for use within a Mass, so composers include the "set pieces" for that particular service, such as the Sanctus and Agnus Dei which have to be sung at the breaking of the bread. As a result, movements are usually fairly self-contained and free-standing, with the intention that they are separated by readings, prayers or other liturgy; singing them consecutively in a concert performance is often not what the composer had in mind. Brahms is not constrained by having to work within the liturgical context of a church service and his requiem has a strong development of ideas across all seven movements. He creates a vast canvas for a continuous narrative, a narrative that has a human, rather than mystical, flavour. It's also a tour-de-force for the choir, which is joined by soprano and bass soloists.
The summer concert is always a box office risk for us and we are hoping this bold programming will attract a good crowd - do please spread the word and I hope to see you there!
Christopher Gray, Director of Three Spires Singers and Orchestra.