REVIEW: Sorrow and joy in Brahms’ choral masterpiece at Ardingly concert

Ardingly Choral Society with Robert Hammersley and Shirley Ventham (on his left). Picture by Melvyn Walmsley
Ardingly Choral Society with Robert Hammersley and Shirley Ventham (on his left). Picture by Melvyn Walmsley

Brahms Requiem, Ardingly Choral Society, College Chapel Choir and Mid Sussex Sinfonia, Ardingly College Chapel, April 22

Conductor Robert Hammersley set out to show how Brahms’ Requiem, clarified here by an English text, moves from pain and sorrow to joy.

In a cathedral with a large orchestra, this perennially popular work’s beautiful magnificence is apparent.

However, with large, all-age choral forces seamlessly blended with fewer instruments (led effectively by Martin Palmer) in this chapel’s more intimate “wonderful ambience”, Hammersley realised something. It’s what Georg Pedota described as the Requiem’s “interaction and relationship between text, instrumentation and musical style, emphasizing an essentially organic and entirely human quality”.

That essential symmetry of text and music must pivot on a confident, hopeful fourth movement – ‘How lovely are all thy dwellings fair’.

Brahms’ choral masterpiece starts by comforting the living but is full of resurrection joy, the perspective of a Lutheran tested by mourning, not a humanist. In that section and throughout – soloists appear in few of the seven movements – a well drilled choir is essential, with clear diction, its four parts distinct yet overlapping in holistic harmony. To the great credit of the College Choir, directed by Richard Stafford, they and the Choral Society, resplendent in new uniforms, were one choir singing superbly.

The soloists, on equally fine form, reinforced the suffusion of joy. Robert Davies’ rich baritone, smoothly phrased and pin-sharp in diction, had the authority of a strong sea current, unseen but surging forward steadily: measured, majestic yet relentless. Olivia Bell’s pellucid, burnished soprano tones, ideal for conveying hope becoming joy, climbed eagerly, nimble as a sunflower towards the eternal light beyond the high ceiling, despite night falling.

The result? A musical triumph. No wonder Bernard Shaw regretted dismissing Brahms’ shining choral gem as the work of “a first-class undertaker”.

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