‘An English Requiem’
‘An English Requiem’ Recording: Ein Deutsches Requiem by Johannes Brahms, as it was known in nineteenth-century Britain
'This disc deserves a place in the catalogue to itself'
- Peter Quantrill, Gramophone
'An intimate, highly charged chamber performance'
- Stephen Pritchard, The Observer
- Norman Lebrecht, La Scena Musicale
'It's modest, unshowy. Brahms without grandeur. Brahms translated'
- Helen Wallace, BBC Music Magazine
'It’s been superbly recorded with well-judged tempos and commanding playing from James Baillieu and Richard Uttley, impressive soloists (Mary Bevan and Marcus Farnsworth), and superb choral work under conductor Joseph Fort.' - Apple Music
This recording from the Choir of King’s College London (Joseph Fort, director) was released on the Delphian Records label on 17th November 2017. Titled ‘An English Requiem’, this recording revives the first English setting of Ein Deutsches Requiem by Johannes Brahms, as it would have been performed in nineteenth-century Britain.
Since its London premiere in 1871, Brahms’s Requiem has enjoyed immense popularity in Britain, in both its orchestral and chamber versions. But the setting we know today is not the one that nineteenth-century British audiences knew and loved. They would have been unlikely to have heard the work performed in German; rather, it was almost always sung in an English translation, which the writer G. A. Macfarren even christened ‘An English Requiem’ in 1873.
This is the first recording of the nineteenth-century English setting in which the Requiem was known by its earliest British audiences. Just as at the 1871 London premiere, the choir here is accompanied by piano duet instead of orchestra, with dynamic pianists James Baillieu and Richard Uttley performing this role. Soprano Mary Bevan and baritone Marcus Farnsworth complete the stellar cast of young soloists.
This recording is not just a revival of a nineteenth-century artefact; it should also make its listeners think. For listeners and critics today who are used to mainstream recordings of this piece sung in German by a massed chorus with full orchestral accompaniment, hearing the Requiem sung in English with piano accompaniment will certainly feel strange. But this strangeness is merely a result of an inflexible performance culture today that prioritises a single, ‘ideal’ version of a piece over its arrangements.
This was not the prevailing view in the nineteenth century. Nineteenth-century attitudes towards music were simply more flexible than ours are now, and perhaps more audience oriented. Translating a work into its audience’s native language and adapting it for the available players were commonplace practices, and these alterations were not seen as corruptions to an ideal original. In fact, they were crucial for music’s communication, as translating it guaranteed its comprehensibility. Brahms took for granted the different versions of his Requiem; after all, he had specifically chosen familiar texts in order that his audiences would know and understand them.
The danger today is that we prioritise music’s sounds over its message, that our preoccupation with single, original, ideal versions risks forgetting about music’s need to communicate with its audience. This recording puts forward an alternative possibility. The choir’s director, Joseph Fort, explains, ‘Brahms’s Requiem is a personal, heartfelt expression of comfort in the face of loss, whose message is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it 150 years ago. I hope that returning to the nineteenth-century English version for this recording enables our performance to speak directly and fervently to its audiences, to move them and to convince them.’
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The launch concert was held on Friday 1 December 2017 at 19.30 in the College Chapel on the Strand Campus.