St Peter’s Cathedral, Bremen
April 10, 2018

It was Good Friday, April 10, 1868, when Johannes Brahms first presented his completed German Requiem to the world in Bremen’s St Peter’s Cathedral. Using German texts in what had, up until then, been the Latin Requiem, it was to be his longest work. Among the music nobility present in Bremen for the 1868 premier was Clara Schumann.

Over the last 150 years, Bremen’s St Peter’s Cathedral has endured its share of ordeals. Miraculously, it did not suffer major structural damage in WWII as many nearby buildings did, but it did not escape misguided modernisation in the 1970s, which resulted in removing the platform in front of the organ from where Brahms directed his work for its 1868 premier. Its smaller replacement meant it was no longer capable of accommodating the orchestra and choir required for the work. Thus, for this week’s performance, the orchestra, choir and soloists, were relocated to the main altar, and performers were no longer able to take advantage of the acoustic benefits of performing from a higher location in the Romanesque-Gothic church.

German RequiemPaavo Järvi conducts the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and the Latvian State Choir in Brahms’ A German Requiem. Photo © Julia Baier

Paavo Järvi conducted this performance. Artistic Director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen since 2004, he is currently midway through a longer Brahms project with the ensemble. Järvi’s direction was solid. While his initial tempi were fast, they eventually settled to reveal a musical arch that linked the requiem’s seven movements.

Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie’s proficient string section provided a foundation for strong ensemble playing, though they were let down at times by shaky intonation in the winds. The latter was particularly noticeable in the sustained opening passages and the final chords of the serene last movement.

This work’s compositional weaknesses are found in the vocal writing, where – notably – the choir and solo soprano passages sit awkwardly. The Latvian State Choir managed many of these hurdles admirably, sustaining a legato line throughout. The ensemble had a brighter sound than most German choirs in this work. However, reticent diction at times meant texts were incomprehensible, and consonants not sung together created an annoying ricochet effect in some passages.

By contrast, German bass-baritone Matthias Goerne – synonymous with this work – displayed clarity in his diction, although his sound was, at times, tight. Soprano Valentina Farca also managed the notoriously tricky passages well.

Throughout the work, Järvi’s leadership demonstrated how interwoven the seven movements are. When the choir sang the final “Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herrn sterben, von nun an” (Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth), tranquillity descended on St Peter’s Cathedral. After the last chord sounded, Järvi remained motionless, and the audience refrained from applauding for close to ten seconds, allowing everyone present to linger a little longer in the last ethereal chords of Brahms’ German Requiem.