Brahms’ German Requiem

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Thursday 22nd October, 7.30pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra


  • Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25, K.503, 30′
  • Brahms A German Requiem, 70′

Francesco Piemontesi’s encore –
Unfortunately, Susan Gritton has had to withdraw from the these concerts due to illness. We are grateful to Eleanor Dennis for taking her place at very short notice.
“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted”. Brahms didn’t believe in God, but he did believe in love, and as he grappled with personal tragedy he created a Requiem intended to comfort those left behind. Andrew Manze conducts our acclaimed Chorus in this most tender of all great choral works, while Francesco Piemontesi rejoices in the sunlight of one of Mozart’s noblest concertos.
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Q&A with Francesco Piemontesi in the Guardian “Facing the Music“.


Review by Robert Gainer, BachTrack:

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…     “Although the Requiem is some seventy minutes long, there was not a moment when I was not fully engrossed. Beginning with some gorgeously resonant bowing from the basses and cellos, Manze created a tension in the acoustic that he shaped, moulded, folded and manipulated perfectly, remaining undaunted by the magnitude of the work nor by the 180 strong assembly of singers and instrumentalist facing him. Indeed, it was remarkable just how much they trusted him, and he held them entirely in the palms of his hands as he coaxed delicate whispers in pianissimo and sucked out the breath from their diaphragms in majestic and unrestrained fortissimo.

The CBSO Chorus were at their very best. I have seen them a number of times and hold them in the highest regard, but in this piece and under Manze’s baton, they excelled themselves. Each section held its own and the distinction between the alto and soprano voices was especially clear. Yet this was not a concert of an orchestra supporting a chorus, or vice versa, but of two ensembles being played as one. At no point were any voices drowned out by the instruments, and each section played in complete sympathy with the others. The timpani (played by Antoine Siguré) was perfectly weighted in the piano passages and thunderous in crescendo, exactly as it should be. The principal flautist (Veronika Klírová) was making some wonderful sweet lyrical songs from her part, and played particularly beautifully in the final few bars of the fifth movement.

The two principal voices of the requiem, a baritone and a soprano, were provided by Mark Stone and Eleanor Dennis respectively. Stone performed admirably, his lower register seemingly sharing some of the same resonance as the bowed basses and cellos in the opening bars of the first and second movements. His diction was excellent and he projected well, making full use of the acoustics in the hall. Dennis was a last minute substitution for soprano Susan Gritton, unfortunately unable to perform due to illness. Dennis sang the part with quite a heavy vibrato which suited the solemn and melancholic mood, and her performance of the fifth movement was one of the highlights of the evening.”     …


Review by Geoff Read, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:

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Although the text Brahms employs for his Ein deutsches Requiem is taken from the Old and New Testaments (plus two verses of the Apocrypha) it makes no reference to Christianity as such. This was intentional, giving the work universal rather than national or sectarian appeal. Indeed, after its premiere in 1869, the composer pointed out that he might well have omitted ‘German’ from the title and substituted ‘Human’. And this performance of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Andrew Manze on 22nd Oct 2015 was a human one, reflecting the highs and lows of life.

The piece was inspired while Brahms was mourning the loss of his mother and the first movement Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they that mourn) very much conveyed a feeling of bereavement. The reiterations of Selig sind from the CBSO Chorus were truly blessed; their variations of the Beatitude couplet offering both soothing sympathy and heavenly solace, emotions smoothly aided at times by the oboe of Rainer Gibbons. It was a superb opener: the German text coming across well whether the voices were in unison, the repeated Getröstet (comfort), or in sequence, Die mit Tränen (with tears). The soaring sopranos on denn sie sollen (for they shall) were inspirational. Manze added a marschemässig to the continuing langsam tempo for the second movement Denn alles Fleisch (For all flesh), Antoine Siguré solidly beating out the rhythm. The music drove forward at funereal pace to the texts of Peter and James, before liltingly celebrating the ‘fruits of the earth’.

After the A Section reprise, Manze strikingly burst forth with a triumphant Aber des Herrn Wort (But the Word of the Lord). Mark Stone was imposing enough as the baritone soloist in the next section Herr, lehre doch mich (Lord make me know) although I thought his words from Isaiah more pleading that prayerful. The sopranos of the CBSO chorus led the way in the popular fourth movement Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How amiable are thy tabernacles). Birmingham is blessed with a richly acclaimed choir, and they once again stole the show on 22nd Oct 2015 with this movement; with Director Simon Halsey seemingly taking a back seat, it was Matthew Hamilton of the Hallé who was credited as Chorus Master, proving he had done his homework well.”     …


Review by David Hart, Birmingham Post:

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…     “But it’s a hard sing – though you wouldn’t have thought so listening to the effortless, gold plated CBSO Chorus last Thursday – and, if not handled properly by a sympathetic conductor, can be exhausting to sit through. On this occasion, however, it was not.

From the outset a wonderfully hushed opening chorus showed how alert Andrew Manze is to tone and structure which, as the work progressed, acquired an almost symphonic dimension. Admittedly, he couldn’t do much about the contrived conclusion to ‘Herr, lehre doch mich’ (Mark Strong the robustly articulated soloist) or the cloying sweetness of ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ (a waltz in all but name, clearly enjoyed by the choir).

And ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’, undoubtedly the most cogently wrought of its seven movements, was contoured superbly well by Manze, with clenched-fist energy at the climax and a thrilling concluding panegyric.”     …


War and Revolution

ThumbnailCBSO 2020Raise the Roof

Sunday 15th February 2015 at 3.00pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121 345 0600

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Andris Nelsons  conductor
Eleanor Dennis  soprano
Simon Callow  speaker

Elgar: Polonia, Op.76 13′
Elgar: Sospiri, Op.70 5′
Elgar: Voix dans le Désert, Op. 77: for Speaker, Soprano, & Orchestra 11′
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 (The Year 1905) 60′

War, protest, and a great nation on the brink of revolution: officially, Shostakovich based his mighty Eleventh Symphony on the events of 1905 – but this roof-raising blockbuster of a symphony is still thrillingly relevant today. Back in England, Elgar did current affairs a little differently. Andris Nelsons explores some of the deeply moving music that Britain’s greatest composer wrote in response to the First World War.

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Review by John Quinn, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:

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…     “This movement is all about tension and atmosphere; it’s a vast curtain-raiser to the tragedy that is to unfold. It’s essential that a mood of glacial stillness and tension is established from the outset and then maintained. Nelsons and his players succeeded in this, not least in maintaining the tension. In the second movement, ‘The Ninth of January’ the brutal dispersal of the crowd is depicted. Much of the music is vivid and graphic with Shostakovich calling on the large brass section and the substantial percussion battery – a timpanist and seven colleagues. After a vicious fugal passage for strings, bitingly articulated here, the music reaches a massive climax; quite rightly, Nelsons didn’t hold back on the decibel levels here This climax was a real assault on the ears but it made all the more effective the sudden cut-off where Shostakovich reverts to the glacial stillness of the symphony’s opening – except that now we hear an appalled stillness after the brutality.

 The third movement, ‘Eternal Memory’ is an extended lament for the fallen innocents. It begins with a long, poignant theme played by all the violas. The CBSO viola section excelled here, playing with great expression while Nelsons exerted great care over the moulding of the music. (Rightly, the viola section was singled out for applause en masse at the end of the performance.) This movement, an intense elegy, was played with great eloquence by the CBSO. There was driving urgency in the finale, ‘The Alarm Bell’. Nelsons inspired playing of tremendous bite. The decibel level is consistently high for much of this movement though I can’t help feeling that the composer’s invention is at its weakest here. Yet another immense climax gives way to what is arguably the most poignant moment in the work. Shostakovich returns once more to the material with which he’d begun the symphony nearly an hour ago and from it rises a long, deeply felt cor anglais solo. This horribly exposed solo was played with great distinction by Jane Marshall. As the music picks up once more in vehemence there’s a swirling undercurrent on the bass clarinet. I’ve never heard this brought out so strongly as it was here and the effect of hearing this threatening material along with pounding drums was to emphasise, for me, the darkness in the score. The symphony achieves a thunderous conclusion but the music is not celebratory in tone. Instead, enigmatic as ever, Shostakovich sets up a major-key/minor-key clash, emphasised by the dissonant clamour of two sets of tubular bells. No empty revolutionary triumph is depicted here.

One member of the audience, perhaps deceived, started to applaud immediately but, mercifully, stopped at once while Nelsons and the orchestra held the moment, allowing the bell tones to decay naturally. Then, and only then, was applause for this electrifying performance justified.

The applause was sustained and enthusiastic and that was as it should be for this was a concert hat reminded us once more what a fine partnership there is between Andris Nelsons and the CBSO. We should make the most of it while it lasts.”