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Review of Brahms’s Requiem at the Petersfield Musical Festival

31/03/2019

The final concert of the 2019 Musical Festival featured the return of the Basingstoke Symphony Orchestra. This group of sixty musicians deliver some excellent playing with the woodwind section being particularly notable. However, it has to be said that the orchestra was rather too large for the Festival Hall’s unflattering acoustic and on occasions, with ten brass players going hammer and tongs, was overwhelming. – “Too loud, m’dear!”

The evening started with Beethoven’s opus 84 “Egmont” overture. Under Paul Spicer’s detailed direction, the orchestra gave a nicely nuanced if un-adventurous performance with some detailed woodwind playing. This was followed by a jolly and rumbustious performance of Dvořák’s “Slavonic Dances”, the final. Opus 72 Dance sending us off for our interval drinks with feet a’tapping.

After the break came Brahms’s “German Requiem” opus 45. This much-loved work is a big sing for the choir who are on their feet for virtually the whole work. There was some nice singing in the opening chorus, “Blessed are they that mourn”, with good blending, phrasing and diction. The second section was particularly good with a fine orchestral crescendo leading to the choir’s forte unison entry, “Behold, all flesh is as the grass”. I see I wrote “spine-tingling” in my notes – it certainly was!

The third number, “Lord let, me know mine end”, opens with the baritone soloist, Gareth Brynmor John. Gareth has a strong, clear and very tuneful voice and one could hear every word. The chorus act as a backing group for the first part of this piece, singing with warmth and clarity. However the great tenor fugue-like entry, “But the righteous souls are in the hand of God”, was rather less successful, the brass overcoming the valiant efforts of the men. The section ended with an exciting, if slightly ragged, crescendo to a joyous D major conclusion.

How lovely are thy dwellings fair” is the deservedly best-known section of the Requiem and was sung with warmth and enjoyment by the Chorus. This piece is not as easy as it looks and there is a tendency to go flat in places but this was avoided and the whole number came to a satisfying, calm end.

Claire Seaton is an old friend of the Festival, having appeared many times in the past and as usual, she did not disappoint. The soprano has only one number to sing in the Requiem and Claire made the most of it. The poignant words, “Ye now have sorrow” were beautifully shaped and moulded and the choir provided discreet accompaniment throughout.

The Baritone and chorus came together for the penultimate piece and it was interesting to note Brahms’s totally different treatment of the words “Behold I tell/shew you a Mystery” compared to Handel in “Messiah”. There was some good strong singing in this section, a fine entry on “For behold, the trumpet shall sound” and the altos led to way into an excellent fugue, “Worthy art thou..”

The final section, “Blessed art the dead” is given to the choir alone and starts strongly, dying away to a quietly moving, “Which die in the Lord”. Here both choir and orchestra were in tune together, complimenting each other with some delightful singing and playing, and bringing the work a peaceful end.

The performance was much appreciated by the enthusiastic response of the audience and brought to an end another great week’s music making.

Author: David Francombe
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