In the last 25 years, David Hill has conducted the cathedral choirs of Winchester and Westminster in many distinguished recordings of choral repertoire for Hyperion, but these days he seems to be spending more time on the other side of the Atlantic since his appointment in 2013 to the staff of the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University. This is his third release for the label since he assumed the post of Director of the Schola Cantorum there. The first two involved music by Palestrina and Fauré. Both discs were well received. The latter inevitably centred on the French master’s immortal Requiem, which was given in an arrangement by Hill himself involving a reduced accompaniment for violin, cello, harp and organ. This new disc of Brahms’s German Requiem also features a reduction. In this case, the British pianist and composer Iain Farrington has contributed an arrangement for four strings (including double bass), three wind instruments and piano. Of course, Brahms produced his own version of the work for with piano duet (known as the ‘London’ version) which has been recorded a few times, most recently in an English translation on Delphian; Paul Corfield Godfrey’s review of this includes an interesting account of its history.
I have to say that I have always loved the piece. I first got to know it when I sung a couple of its movements as a bass in the school choir which we performed (with piano duet) at the wedding (!) of our music teacher. It has to be said that encountering the Requiem in its entirety, with full orchestra, was pretty overwhelming; by comparison I would suggest its impact without the full band is likely to be blunted. I imagine those choral societies who are compromised by practical or financial constraints could benefit greatly from the existence of these reductions, but is there any real aesthetic justification for this particular chamber version?
Let me say at once that the quality of the singing and playing, and Hill’s pacing and control of the work in this sonorous and carefully recorded account, is of a very high order. The low piano, and single strings’ introduction at the outset of Selig sind , die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they that bear grief) works well, but as the choir gets into its stride the ensemble’s shimmering, civilised textures seem in danger of being swamped. It is during the Requiem’s many reflective moments, however, that Farrington’s arrangement comes into its own, projecting Brahms’s wonderful music in an intimate, consolatory manner more in keeping with the spirit of the piece, which—as the notes remind us—is unusual in such works: its text is more concerned with providing words of comfort for those left behind than making a plea for rest for the departed.
There is something oddly Mahlerian about the piano-and-strings presentation of the march in Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras (For all flesh is as grass). The sadness here is most pronounced. As the mood intensifies towards the choir’s mighty restatement of this verse, the accompaniment becomes more impassioned but again seems to be overwhelmed by the splendid sound of these Yale singers at full throttle. And I suppose this is my main issue with this disc. The reduction is skilled for sure, the piano truly heroic in its attempts to recreate harp or timpani effects, but it cannot always be heard. In the quieter passage that follows, the higher voices emerge as wonderfully secure and clear-textured. I felt that the ensemble ultimately lacked something of the virility required to match Brahms’s majestic choral writing (and this choir’s crisp yet fervent account of it) towards the end of this movement.
The baritone Matt Sullivan is currently engaged in postgraduate studies at Yale but is already a seasoned performer, and here makes telling contributions to the third and sixth movements. His delivery of the text from Psalm 39 in Herr, lehre doch mich (Lord, teach me) is penetrating and assertive, his contribution by turns noble and sensitive. At times in this movement the latent power of this choir is made clear, but it further exposes the limitations of the chamber group. When the textures do penetrate though, they sound lovely. Perhaps the arrangement works best in the gentler, more pastoral inspiration of Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely are thy dwellings) where the accompaniment conveys a warmth conducive to what is a consolatory reverie.
The young German soprano Natasha Schnur is the assured soloist in Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (Now you have sorrow). Her bell-like clarity emerges most pleasingly against the string and piano background. The warmth of the recording is certainly apparent here, affording Schnur’s voice an autumnal radiance. The choir’s articulation in Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt (For here we have no lasting city) is tremendously impressive. While there is something tangibly American about their sound their enunciation of the German text is utterly unanimous and convincingly idiomatic. Matt Sullivan makes light work of Brahms’s more demanding solo writing in this section but it is the choir that makes a lasting impact, confident, impassioned and transfixing. Hill has clearly prepared them rigorously. The accompaniment also holds its own here during the fugal conclusion.
The notes remind us that Brahms’s intention in the final blessing Selig sind der Toten (Blessed are the dead) is at last to remember those that have passed. Once more the high voices of the choir impress, while the rather sauntering accompaniment takes time to register. There is inevitably a lot of quiet music here; the sound the Hyperion engineers have achieved though projects both serenity and consolation. The chamber textures Farrington provides towards the work’s final bars do seem rather apposite.
Conclusions? Any chance to hear Brahms’s great work sung by a superb choir, which this Yale group unquestionably is, cannot be sniffed at. Hearing it in such an unusual context perhaps enables the listener/reviewer to pay much closer attention to details than perhaps Brahms would have expected (or wanted!). The efforts of all the performers here deserve praise. In terms of the ensemble, the often exposed jack-of all-trades piano part carries a lot of the weight. The pianist Wei-Yi Yang deploys an impressive range of textures and colours. At times I felt some of the features of Farrington’s arrangement were submerged by the singers, but regardless of that I feel this project was a bold venture in its own right. The music-making is splendid and I am certain this is a disc to which I will return.