Grand celebration of Brahms – December 2015

Hexham Courant – Friday, December 15, 2015

(reviewed by Camille Mazarelo)

DURING an extraordinary evening in a glass house where magnificent musicianship reigned over howling gales and lashing rain outside, the Hexham Orpheus Choir gave us two of Brahms’ most celebrated choral works and more.

The evening at Hexham Winter Gardens opened with Schicksalslied Song of Destiny Opus 54, an alternatively passionate and poignant work rendered persuasively by a choir which seems to be able to do no wrong in recent times.

Two short songs followed, each delivered by one of the two guest soloists. O that I knew the way back Opus 63, no8 , a piece with lullaby cadences, was sung by baritone Alex Otterburn with exquisite tenderness and Eternal Love Opus 43, no 1 presented with dramatic charm and intensity by soprano Carole King whose magical voice moves from gargantuan to whisper with seeming effortless ease.

The skills of these two impeccable singers were then brought to bear on the major work of the night, presented after the intermission.

Brahms’ German Requiem Opus 45 can never be described as a traditional requiem. Indeed death is scarcely mentioned in the text. There are no elements of wrath, retribution or repentance.

The seven movements set a series of biblical passages, seemingly chosen at random but, once joined, presenting a highly humanist ethos of consolation, hope and blessings upon both the mourners and those departed.

Although the solemnity of the opening bars of the first movement, does, indeed, feel reminiscent of a sombre Dies Irae, HOC’s able conductor, Mark Edwards, never allowed any sense of turgidness to prevail; phrases soared and fell to a level of lingering quietude which was spine-tingling at times. It is hard to see how he achieves any of this, as there is such a sense of stillness in his conducting.

Unusual and warmly appreciated by an audience keen to focus on the stunning complexity and nuance of this work.

This first movement undoubtedly set the bar for the rest of the work and the choir met the challenge well. Apart from marginal glitches (occasional hesitant bass entries most noticeable in the choral fugue section of the third movement; a sense of loss of clarity within the interplay of lines in the marvellous, huge C major double fugue and transient weariness in the soprano section in the early bars of the final movement creating a loss of sharpness in the extraordinarily difficult little triplets they had to surmount), this was an outstanding performance.

Alex Otterburn was consistent in his lovely interpretation of his choir- inspiring role in the third and sixth movements and the fifth movement saw the return of Carole King’s voice perfectly delivering the pathos of a mother’s solace.

Both the fourth and seventh movements provided textures and harmonies of almost unbearable sweetness, the tenors excelled in providing this element of tone throughout the performance.

A word about the accompanists. Margaret Huntingdon accompanied the Song of Destiny as her final task for the choir. This was the night that Hexham Orpheus Choir bade farewell to Margaret, who has supported them through 15 years, during which she has undoubtedly been instrumental in helping to raise its profile to one of the leading choirs in the North-East, (this position despite a non-auditioned membership).

The German Requiem was accompanied on two pianos by Sarah Robinson and Michael Haynes. I have been told by some that the pianos could not be easily heard in parts of the hall. It may be that the engulfing storm had a role if this was so. From where I was listening, the playing was clear and these accomplished pianists were sensitive and responsive to the singers rendering of this great choral work.

Although I have mentioned glitches I believe such minor flaws are ubiquitous (possibly, even de rigeur) in most cherished and acclaimed recordings of major choral works. This was a grand night for music lovers and it was a true privilege to be there.