Kings Place Hall 1 has a reputation for an unforgiving acoustic, and the London Choral Sinfonia singing last night under Michael Waldron (with pianists Matthew Fletcher and San Lau), were, alas, obviously not aware of this, as the first part of their all-Brahms programme, the opus 52 Liebeslieder Walzer was performed at a dynamic that was never less than mezzo-forte, and, at times (thanks to the diva sections of tenors and sopranos) sometimes at distortion levels of volume. The eighteen short songs represent half an hour of unrelieved triple time, and unless something is done with dynamic (and plenty of them are marked piano or even pianissimo) they can become tedious; Brahms’ ad libitum marking also allows for the songs to be performed from upwards of four soloists, and the excellent vocal quality and blend of the London Choral Sinfonia Singers would have allowed more variety in groupings – using occasional semi-choruses, or even solos – but Waldron chose not to provide dynamic variation via this route either; even the pianists could perhaps have had a lighter touch in places.
The second half of the concert, however, saw more dynamic responsiveness from the choir and pianists, possibly in reaction to the material – Ein Deutsches Requiem. Before the advent of recorded music, piano reductions of orchestral works were often made so that they could be played at home, and gain popularity; Brahms, the consummate pianist, made the piano score (for four hands one piano) of the Requiem himself, and it stands as an increasingly popular and authentic alternative to the full orchestral version – indeed, the clarity of vocal line that results is sometimes preferred. At last the choir managed some moments of gentle pianissimo – the opening of Denn alles Fleisch was quietly uneasy; there were some well-managed dolce moments in Wie lieblich, and the subito piano passage in Denn wir haben was managed perfectly. There was, however, still a tendency for the fugal passages to start a little louder than necessary, with the usual result that, the choir then had nowhere to go in terms of increasing the volume. The intentionally loud moments, however, were magnificent – the crashing re-statements of the opening sinister tune in Denn alles Fleisch; the venomously spat-out Tod, wo ist dein Stachel, and the perfect alto entry to the subsequent fugue. The tenors and sopranos shone in their transcendent opening unison statements of Selig sind die Toten.
The soloists (Augusta Hebbert and Matthew Brook) both performed well, Brook giving edge and sonority by turns to the baritone solos, and Hebbert providing some beautifully sweet soprano top notes in Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit. The pianists also did some sterling work, playing sensitively together. Waldron took the whole Requiem at quite a brisk pace; there were nods to romanticism in the occasional allargando, but he is clearly – and sadly – of the school that eschews luxuriating in the idiom.
On the whole, there was nothing to dislike about the evening, but a more astringent, perhaps contemporary work, in the first half might have provided a better contrast. An all-Brahms choral programme should have provided that contrast by exaggerating the differences (in this case, between the light-as-a-feather Schubertian Liebeslieder and the more solidly romantic-period Requiem), but it didn’t, alas, quite achieve this; the result was, that a performance from a talented group of musicians, that could have been memorable, was merely good.