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Hastings Philharmonic Choir (photo: Peter Mould).

Hastings Philharmonic’s Brahms proves a sell-out

Brahms’ German Requiem was the centrepiece of Hastings Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra’s sell-out concert at Christ Church in late March. Patrick Glass was among the appreciative audience.

The Hastings Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra entertained us with a great concert. To start they played a Romantic gem: the forever memorable Hebrides Overture by Mendelssohn, followed by Brahms’ magnificent and challenging German Requiem.

It was a privilege to be there.  Christ Church was full to overflowing. Before the concert, the Bishop observed, a touch ironically: ‘The Church is fuller than I’m used to…” Marcio da Silva, the Choir and Orchestra and everyone involved are to be heartily congratulated. And also the anonymous benefactor who enabled the Concert to take place.

Maestro da Silva is a sparkling presence.  Commanding and ever so subtle, he conducts with striking immediacy and balletic energy. He has a wonderfully close connection with his Orchestra and Choir. He brings in the huge Choir often on his toes. And he’s a pleasure to watch.

The programme notes were very helpful on the works being performed, most notably on Brahms’ German Requiem.  Lovely to see one of Mendelssohn’s drawings of the Hebrides on the programme. He was a child prodigy and extraordinarily gifted – musician, composer, poet, artist, linguist, athlete. His talents were fully nurtured by his wealthy parents, teachers and his beloved elder sister, Fanny, a talented composer and pianist. He composed his 1st Symphony at 15 and dedicated it to Fanny on her 19th birthday. But it was the Octet at 16 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture the following year that made his name – and sealed his reputation.

The Hebrides Overture –  or Fingal’s Cave – was played with great vitality by the Orchestra. It’s music that speaks of the sea like few others. Enchanted by the Hebrides Islands, Mendelssohn (aged 20) was moved to compose and send the opening theme in letters to Fanny on 1 and 7 August 1829. He was overwhelmed by the awe-inspiring Fingal’s Cave on Staffa Island. Incidentally, looking from the back of the Cave, Iona is framed on the horizon in the East. The Overture is electric and compelling. It fully deserves an encore. Brahms once said: “I would gladly give all I have written, to have composed something like the Hebrides Overture“.

Brahms’ German Requiem is unlike other requiems. It’s his longest work, at over 70 minutes, and composed after his mother’s death in February 1865. He’d always hoped to reconcile her with his father. She’d had a hard life. Brahms had been inspired to compose a requiem by the death of his great friend and mentor, Robert Schumann. Schumann promoted Brahms as Beethoven’s successor. Brahms had yet to complete his long delayed 1st Symphony, started in 1855, ‘Beethoven’s 10th’ (1876). He was pleased to find that Schumann had intended to compose a ‘Human Requiem’ too. And his Requiem was well received from its first performance in Bremen Cathedral on 10 April 1868.

“Brahms modelled his German Requiem on Baroque Lutheran funerary music by composers such as Bach and Schütz,” the programme notes tell us. He was a formidable scholar of music’s history. His Requiem breaks new ground, while alluding to the past. It starts slowly and gracefully and there are some supremely beautiful passages. Helen May’s pure angelic soprano voice soars above the quiet orchestral accompaniment. John Holland-Avery gave a dramatically expressive account of the baritone solos.

One wishes there was more here for the soloists. The Requiem is a shifting wall of sound, with deep chorals slowly emerging from the depths, and emphatic strings alternating with dominant percussion – a fateful underpinning drumbeat. Singers relate that the Requiem is the most affecting of choral works. The work is a reconciliation with death and a comfort for the living – a solace for the irreplaceable. At times it’s overwhelming, transcendent, and gives goosebumps. All credit to the Choir and Orchestra for a most memorable performance. And many thanks to all concerned.

For those who missed this wonderful concert, do see David Zinman and the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra’s performance of the German Requiem (You Tube, 2019).

Incidentally, there’s a general view that Mendelssohn  “…never wrote anything greater than his early works” (The Music Makers, edited by Clive Unger-Hamilton et al, 1980). It’s not true. The incomparable Violin Concerto was composed three years before his tragically early death in 1847, at 38. And why the great 5th Symphony, ‘The Reformation’ (premiered in 1832, published in 1868) is not more popular is frankly puzzling.


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Posted 21:16 Thursday, Apr 21, 2022 In: Music & Sound

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