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Review: Brahms German Requiem, CBSO at the Symphony Hall

Brahms would have been perfectly happy to call his biggest choral composition a ‘Human’ Requiem, and what a difference it might have made.

Brahms would have been perfectly happy to call his biggest choral composition a ‘Human’ Requiem, and what a difference it might have made. After all, this extended meditation on death and mourning has universal resonance, not just for those with a religious faith – hence the absence, despite its Biblical texts, of specifically Christian references.

But it’s a hard sing – though you wouldn’t have thought so listening to the effortless, gold plated CBSO Chorus last Thursday – and, if not handled properly by a sympathetic conductor, can be exhausting to sit through. On this occasion, however, it was not.

From the outset a wonderfully hushed opening chorus showed how alert Andrew Manze is to tone and structure which, as the work progressed, acquired an almost symphonic dimension. Admittedly, he couldn’t do much about the contrived conclusion to ‘Herr, lehre doch mich’ (Mark Strong the robustly articulated soloist) or the cloying sweetness of ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ (a waltz in all but name, clearly enjoyed by the choir).

And ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’, undoubtedly the most cogently wrought of its seven movements, was contoured superbly well by Manze, with clenched-fist energy at the climax and a thrilling concluding panegyric.

The fine orchestral support of the CBSO here was less well-defined in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25, with a rather strident opening Allegro that contrasted uncomfortably with the pellucid playing of the young Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi. As is often the case in these concertos, the best moments came in the aria-like Andante, and its conversations between piano and woodwind (although in this particular one Mozart seemed to have little to say).

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