A work of haunting beauty from beyond the grave

Simone Young conducts A German Requiem
Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Opera House Concert Hall

Baritone Bo Skovus sang the opening line of the third movement of Brahms’ A German Requiem with a wonderfully textured voice of sepulchral richness and even a hint of drama and theatricality – Lord teach me that I must have an ending.

Emma Matthews’ bright bel canto tone has evolved into a broader soundCredit:

You could almost imagine he had learnt the lesson and wanted to come back to tell us what it was like. Drama and theatricality, of the sort used by Mozart in his Requiem and which would later become such a defining feature of Verdi’s great work in the genre, was something Brahms scrupulously avoided, not only in this work but throughout his whole life – he once wrote to Clara Schumann that he had given up all thoughts of opera and marriage.

Brahms begins the work with a chorus of contemplative quietness – Blessed are they who mourn. He omits violins entirely so the violas and cellos create a bed of “bovine warmth” under the choir (to use a phrase from a different but not unrelated context by novelist Thomas Mann).

Faure was later to exploit the devotional humility of this colour in his own Requiem. The second movement – For all flesh is as grass – is stern and premonitory. The unison hymn-like admonition, first soft then clamorous, gave the Sydney Philharmonia its first chance at full-voiced splendour.

For the fourth movement, the chorus – How amiable are thy tabernacles – conductor Simone Young’s tempos modelled reserve rather than lilting grace. The movement brought out some thinness of sound among the choir’s tenors.

It is a while since Sydney has had a chance to hear soprano Emma Matthews and in the fifth movement, she showed us her bright bel canto tone has evolved into a broader sound well suited to this repertoire while retaining its precision of pitch.

Skovus returned with defined expressive lines in the sixth movement but perhaps the chief structural import here is the opportunity it gives the chorus and orchestra to create stirring turbulence in what is really the first vigorous music in the work.

This movement showed the Philharmonia at its most accomplished and confident and previous strain in high soprano notes disappeared. In the last movement soprano Matthews guided the music back down to the mood of the opening, its themes returning towards the close with mellowness. The acoustic of the refurbished Opera House Concert Hall nurtured the work’s autumnal colours with rewarding clarity without sparing small imperfections.

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