St Martin’s Church, London Road, Worcester, Saturday, April 6 2019
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir chose to programme Johannes Brahms’s magnificent Ein Deutsches Requiem (German Requiem); but with a difference. Instead of the usual orchestral accompaniment, we were treated to an arrangement for two pianos that used Brahms’s original 1869 version for piano duet as its basis.
Having only known the orchestral score, I was inevitably a little apprehensive as to whether this version would work. Brahms, a master writer for the piano did not leave the score wanting: neither too, did the choir. They gave a glorious performance (in German) under the insightful and energetic direction of their conductor Stephen Shellard.
Any doubts I may have had about this version were swept aside by the majestic opening movement ‘Blessed are they that mourn’. Even the sumptuous orchestral introduction was beautifully captured by the deep and sonorous legato lines of the two pianos, expertly played by Christopher Allsop and Robin Walker. From the perfectly paced opening, Stephen Shellard drew impassioned singing from the choir. Indeed, the choral singing throughout was compelling, incisive and well-balanced.
Of the performance’s many high points, I was especially impressed by the mighty chorus, ‘Behold, all flesh is as grass’, where the virtuosic piano writing and vigorous fugal textures added greatly to the drama. Equally striking was the thrilling singing in ‘For we have here no abiding city’. The faster sections were taken at a breathtaking pace with the pianos’ percussive incisiveness adding greatly to the overall excitement and rhythmic drive.
The soloists too added much to the success of this performance. Baritone Edward Seymour possessed a wonderfully lyrical tone and sang his solos with deft assurance, while soprano Sheila Davies was the highly expressive singer in ‘Now you have sorrow’; her bell-like clarity emerging most pleasingly against the backdrop of chorus and piano accompaniment.
Brahms envisaged his German Requiem essentially as consolation for those left behind. This concept reached its peak in the final movement, ‘Blessed are the dead’ and in spite of the valedictory nature of such a work, The German Requiem rises memorably in hushed affirmation.
The audience’s enthusiastic and appreciative response brought this 20th Anniversary Concert to a close and left many wondering what the next twenty years would bring: watch this space!
Brahms’ German Requiem is a repertoire staple of choirs around the world but usually with an accompanying orchestra. It is not often performed with a two-piano accompaniment.
For our 20th anniversary concert, Robin Walker steps out from his regular weekly rehearsal accompanist role to join King’s School Assistant Director of Music and Worcester Festival Choral Society’s conductor Christopher Allsop at the keyboard.
The fact that experienced organist, pianist, choirmaster and teacher Robin also works at King’s School has proved a bonus.
“Working under the same roof has been particularly useful for rehearsals,” he says. “Christopher and I have not played together before and it has been an enjoyable and very useful experience. Using two pianos throws us a few more challenges, such as keeping the big chords together of particular note!
“Just synchronising everything, particularly in the more energetic moments, takes some practice,” agrees Christopher.
“But it’s such a wonderful score that it’s a privilege to be able to play it on one’s own instrument. Also, working with a pianist colleague like Robin is rewarding, both socially and musically. Both of us working at King’s has certainly made scheduling rehearsals together easier!”
Practising has also required two pianos. “This arrangement uses all of both keyboards, so you would keep crashing into each other if there were two of us at just one piano.” explains Christopher.
However, audiences need not think they’ll be hearing a ‘cut down’ version of the full orchestral score.
“While both of us get a good share of the orchestral writing, very often the independent piano parts are quite different, adding variety,” says Robin.
For our conductor Stephen, using the piano version neatly avoids the possibility of repeating the disaster of the work’s 1867 premiere.
“A timpanist wrongly read an instruction to play at full volume and proceeded to drown out part of the Third Movement,” he reveals. “A contemporary critic wrote that the singers were intent on ‘shouting each other down wildly,’. Maybe they were trying to drown out the percussive din.”
The concert takes place in St Martin’s Church, London Road, on Saturday, April 6, at 7.30pm. Tickets are available from Eventbrite, from 01386 860389 or on the door.
Want to get an insight into what it’s like being part of Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir? This article in the 2019 Spring issue of WR Magazine is a great read and gives you a taste of our stringent rehearsal process!
We love it when our concert activities make the news, so we’re singing the praises of Country Lifestyle and Leisure Magazine, which recently supported our 20th Anniversary Brahms Requiem concert with this great article on one of its glossy pages.
We’re now on the home straight with our preparations for this concert in St Martin’s Church, London Road, Worcester, on April 6 (tickets available through the link on our home page or here). Featuring the composer’s own two-piano arrangement, it’s going to be something special.
You can read the County Lifestyle and Leisure Magazine article online here.
We are so excited and honoured to be joining the English Symphony Orchestra for this festival performance of Donald Fraser’s acclaimed choral arrangement of Elgar’s Sea Pictures.
It is such a privilege to be part of this concert that is also a 100th anniversary gala celebration of Sir Edward’s Cello Concerto, which will be performed by world-leading musician Raphael Wallfisch in the cathedral.
With the theme ‘Elgar for Everyone’ festival organisers are determined to engage people of all ages and walks of life in the legacy and music of the city’s world famous son. A jam-packed programme of activities includes the chance to play one of the great man’s own pianos.
For Raphael Wallfisch the Elgar festival’s ethos couldn’t be better demonstrated than through the Cello Concerto, which was conceived during the dark years of the First World War as Elgar recuperated from an operation. However it was initially a flop.
“Elgar was to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra and the young British cellist Felix Salmond but the rest of the programme, at the Queen’s Hall that October 1919, was conducted by Albert Coates, who was in fact my wife’s grandfather,” says Raphael Wallfisch. “Albert took the bulk of the rehearsal time, and a mere 30 minutes were left for the concerto.
“The performance was not good and the orchestra unprepared. The public and critics were puzzled and unsure about the new work and Felix never played it again.
“It took a number of years, and distance from the Edwardian era and World War 1, for it to be realised how powerfully evocative and nostalgic the music is. I am greatly looking forward to performing this now beloved work in Worcester with the ESO.”
The June 1 gala evening also includes Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony.
Other festival concerts include music from professional chamber choir The Proteus Ensemble, Elgar and Debussy sonatas from violin virtuoso Zoë Beyers and a song recital featuring the more familiar voice and piano version of Sea Pictures.
Alongside this busy programme are educational workshops, talks, poetry readings, a new version of the Elgar Trail, a Cello Day for families and young people and an Elgar for Everyone Family Concert in Malvern College, hosted by narrator Ben Humphrey.
“Every once in a while, we need to step back from a very popular work like the Cello Concerto and remind ourselves of why it resonates so deeply with so many millions of listeners,” says Elgar Festival Artistic Director Kenneth Woods.
“We want the festival to create the conditions whereby even the most jaded Elgar fan can hear this most personal work with fresh ears.
“The Cello Concerto was my pathway into the world of this great composer whose music has had such a profound influence on my life,” he continues.
“From my first encounter with it as a young cellist in America, it cast a spell on me, and after all the times I’ve since played it, heard it and conducted it, its power and honesty continues to amaze me.
“To conduct this 100th anniversary performance with Raphael in Elgar’s home city, in the shadow of the Malvern Hills whose profile helped inspire the work’s opening melody, is more than a dream come true. I would never have dared dream something so crazy, so unlikely. I can’t wait.”
Our Evensong this weekend will be a bit of a birthday party – with civic dignitaries and leading county arts and religious figures on our guest list. We’ve invited friends, sponsors, supporters past and present to join us and the congregation for the service which is our 20th Anniversary Evensong and is followed by a celebration reception in the Chapter House. Saturday’s occasion is our first big event in this special years which also includes a performance of Brahms’ German Requiem in April and a summer gala dinner, not to mention our fund-raising ceilidh on February 9 in Peopleton Village Hall (more anon). Reception attendees will be able to enjoy a bit of celebration birthday cake and the opportunity to find out more about our plans for the future. “We’re a high quality and innovative group which alongside our regular cathedral service and concert programme commitments, is looking to work in partnership with local organisations for mutual benefit,” says our MD Stephen. “We are also committed to bringing further ambitious and innovative programmes to the city that will not only add to its cultural life but reinforce Worcester’s reputation as a great place in which to live, work and visit.”
Saturday’s anthem is Parry’s Hear My Words, Ye People. Listen to us sing it here on our CD Rise Heart.