Review: Brahms Requiem, Scottish Symphony Orchestra

02.14.11
Donald Runnicles
The Scotsman

By Sandy Scott

Instead of using the traditional Latin text for his Requiem, Brahms opted to set a number of passages he carefully chose from Luther's Bible and the Apocrypha. His title, therefore, became Ein deutsches Requiem. It grew gradually from three movements to the seven we now have.

Written against a background of having lost his mother, composer, friend and teacher Robert Schumann, it revealed an attitude to religion which was philosophical rather than theological. When it first appeared, there was severe criticism on that account. It nonetheless established the reputation of Brahms as a leading composer of his day.

Conductor Donald Runnicles had the inspired idea of opening the concert with Haydn's Mourning Symphony. No.44 in E minor, it belongs to a group of relatively seldom performed works from the composer's middle years as court musician at Esterházy. That its slow movement was performed at a Berlin memorial concert following his death in 1809 might be taken to justify its suitability as a companion piece for the German Requiem.

In Haydn's middle symphonies, to obtain a successful interpretation it is necessary for every note to be given its proper place in the overall texture. Runnicles took care to achieve precision in the accompanying figuration on which the thematic structure is developed. Individual contributions sparkled every now and then, not least some high horn notes in the Trio of the Minuet. The strings also demonstrated their capacity for a wide range of expression.

From the opening bars onwards, the Requiem moved through a series of revelations. The tempo of the second movement's funeral march seemed too slow at first, but that restraint had a telling effect in the fortissimo repetition.

Baritone Marcus Brück contributed two sterling solos that fell instantly into perspective with what conductor, orchestra and chorus had achieved. Brahms added the serene fifth movement last of all and Lisa Milne made light of its taxing soprano solo.