Spa Pavilion, Strathpeffer, 7 May 2011
IT COULD be said that Dingwall and District Choral Society’s performance of Brahms German Requiem was twenty years in the making, for it marked the swan song of Norman Bolton’s two decades of inspiring and developing this ardent bunch of fifty or so singers.
In his valedictory speech, Norman admitted that this requiem was one of the most technically difficult of all choral works, and it was also his all-time favourite. But the quality of the performance stands as a testament to the achievements of both conductor and choir over the years.
It might seem strange that Brahms, a north German protestant, should have composed a requiem, normally considered to be a Catholic ceremony, a Latin Mass for the Dead. All the texts are taken from Luther’s translation of The Bible and the Apocrypha, but at no point is the name of Jesus Christ mentioned. Brahms was inspired to compose this Requiem, firstly by the death of his mentor, Schumann and later by the passing of his mother in 1865. Far from a Mass for the Dead, Brahms has produced a work to console the living and to invoke God for comfort.
Musically, what makes this Requiem so different is the sheer quantity of choral involvement. All seven parts are written for chorus, although they are joined by the soprano soloist in one part and by the baritone in two, calling for a huge amount of hard work and dedication.
Rather than opting for a small orchestra, Bolton decided on a piano accompaniment by Aileen Fraser and Lucy Robertson, giving the performance a more intimate, almost domestic feel, and by placing the piano to the side, with the lid directing its sound across the chorus, the problem of the singers having to project over an orchestra was removed. What the audience got was full on, direct singing.
From the very start of ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen’ the singing of the chorus was crisp and in excellent unison, with clear enunciation. Perhaps there could have been a little more variety in their emotional expression, but it is safer to stay clear of the fine line that would take the sound into mawkish excess. The noticeable feature was that as the performance progressed their confidence seemed to increase.
Of the two guest soloists, baritone Paul Keohone had the larger role, fronting the chorus in both ‘Herr, lehre doch mich, daß Ende’ and ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’. His fine velvet tone just added that extra dimension to the strength of the chorus.
Soprano Wilma MacDougall has appeared often in the Highlands since her days as a protégée of the grand doyenne of Scottish singers, Patricia MacMahon. It was a real pleasure to hear the ringing sound of her voice once again in the fifth part of the Requiem, ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’. But what a shame that Wilma had travelled north to perform for so short a time.
The German Requiem is not a long work, a smidgeon over the hour, although it places great demands on the chorus. So even after a slightly delayed start and some post concert speeches of thanks, many of the audience were on their way home before the sun was over the horizon. Would it not have been possible to open the concert with a few songs by Wilma MacDougall and Paul Keohone, thereby converting what was a very short evening into a more substantial occasion?
As swan songs go, Norman Bolton’s was a triumph and he hands over to John Thompson the reins of a musical ensemble of which he can be proud.