One strand in this year's Edinburgh International Festival Programme is the Usher Hall performances of great classical requiems. This began last Saturday (17th August 2013) with that of Fauré, performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) under principal conductor Robin Ticciati, now also Music Director Designate of Glyndebourne. The series has continued yesterday (Monday 26th) with Brahms' German Requiem as part of the visit to Scotland of the Tonhalle Orchestra and David Zinman (they are also offering the Brahms Violin Concerto and Bruckner’s third symphony on the preceding Saturday). This work has also been performed this summer (also on Sat 17th August, available until 24th August via BBC iPlayer) at the Proms, a period instrument performance by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) under Marin Alsop, who as has been widely reported is to conduct this year's Last Night. Verdi's more theatrical requiem, performed by the Royal National Scottish Orchestra under the very popular Donald Runnicles will close the EIF concert series on 31st August.
Of the three, Fauré, who served as church organist of the Madeleine church in Paris – where this work was premiered - has the most conventionally religious approach to the material. However he sets not only ordinary of the mass from the requiem mass, but also material from the burial Office for the Dead such as the famous concluding In Paradisium. This was very beautifully sung and in particular played in this Edinburgh performance, the performers building to this memorable culmination of both the work and the evening, such that the audience dispersed homewards with its almost hypnotic rhythms like a lullaby in their ears.
The SCO concert performance offered the Fauré generously coupled with works significant in musical development at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A truly exquisite Five Pieces by Webern followed the interval, which had been preceded by another seminal work of the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht. Opening the concert had been a chamber version of Debussy's Prelude a l'apres midi d'un faune, a pleasing arrangement which brought out delicacy and freshness to this work which although likeable I had heard three times in four days already. All these were performed to a high standard, and were appreciated by an audience sophisticated enough to enjoy this demanding fare as much as to support the National Youth Choir of Scotland. Particularly praised was treble Daniel Doolan, who attends school in nearby Livingston.
If Fauré's purpose in writing a requiem is to portray “a joyful deliverance, an aspiration towards a happiness beyond the grave”, Brahms instead has a more humanistic perspective. His 'German Requiem' embodies greater ambivalence and seeks to acknowledge the pain of loss and comfort those who remain. A protestant rather than a catholic perspective, he has taken and set texts from the Lutheran Bible rather than from church liturgy. It embodies consolation rather than judgement, and perhaps shares with Faure a message of hope but one more embodied in the present world than one to come.
I had some concerns about the impact of period instruments in the large space and sometimes difficult acoustic of the Royal Albert, but these proved largely unnecessary.The singing in this performance – from the Choir of the Age of Enlightenment – was very clear and embodied a sense of joy. It was both a pleasure and an inspiration to listen to. Henk Neven excelled in his first solo, which opened the third movement.
Excellent programming presented the Brahms Requiem alongside his own sombre and dignified Tragic Overture and a work by his close friend and fellow composer, Robert Schumann who had died nine years before the publication of this work, the latter's Fourth Symphony, giving a greater insight into the context of its conception. This very enjoyable performance was not only broadcast live but also repeated on Radio Three on Friday 23rd August, so remains available until Friday 30th August. It is well worth listening to.
The Edinburgh performance was very different in approach but also enjoyable. Its style was highly polished and smooth textured, but perhaps on the brisk side. Conductor David Zinman had an understated efficiency and the singers developed into the work to go from strength to strength. All the singing was enjoyable, but Florian Boesch particularly excelled. The work was really a showcase for his very considerable talents, and whether this performance is to your taste depends heavily on how much you enjoy his particular voice. The combination of his voice and the characteristically central European sound of the orchestra gave this a Germanic stamp through and through, which arguably suited the Brahms well. Just as Marin Alsop's performance sought authenticity of one kind through using instruments in use at the composer's time, in other ways this gave an 'authentic' performance as being from the composer's cultural zone, speaking his language and performing in a style characteristic of his part of the world. The native Festival Chorus were well rehearsed, captured the spirit of the work well and were a credit to Christopher Bell, who is their director.
Verdi's Requiem is like Fauré's in sticking to Catholic liturgy, and in fact on the face of it is more straightforward in its choice of text. However, its musical approach is much more lavish and its total length considerably greater. Rather than play down the emphasis on judgement, awe and terror – as Brahms does – these are dramatised, such as in the extended 'Dies Irae' to create what has sometimes been referred to as 'an opera dressed in church vestments'. Its origins were in a collaborative requiem to commemorate Rossini, to which Verdi would have been but one contributor – his contribution being the concluding Liberare Me, which is the earliest music to have been composed in the present score. Verdi in fact used this material instead to create his own creation of the Requiem, to commemorate the poet and writer Manzoni.