Stanford Requiem review


CBSO & University of Birmingham Voices
Symphony Hall ****

The Birmingham Triennial Festival's back catalogue of major choral & orchestral works is extensive, although a significant number of the commissions have not stood the test of time and have become neglected as time has passed, even those written by leading composers of the day.

Into this category falls Stanford's Requiem, first performed in 1897 and so having a timely airing here in its 125th Anniversary year, premiered just three years before Elgar's Dream of Gerontius which, in contrast, certainly made the Triennial Festival's 'greatest hits' roll call.

Those seeking a 'fire & brimstone' take on the Catholic mass need to look elsewhere; this is a more gentle, intimate, and consoling setting. But that's not to say it lacks contrast – indeed, across its extensive 80-minute running time, there is variety of mood and texture aplenty, with illuminating instrumental scoring such as during the Gradual where the solo soprano – beautifully realised by Carolyn Sampson – is accompanied by solo flute and violin over glistening strings (Stanford's friend and colleague Hubert Parry thought the orchestration particularly worthy of note).

As befits the tutor of a veritable "who's who" of 20th century British composers, Stanford's Requiem is proficiently constructed, albeit principally chordal in style. However, this requires expert ensemble to pull off convincingly, and the solo quartet – soprano Sampson joined by mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanais-Simmons, tenor James Way and bartione Ross Ramgobin – were well blended and balanced.

The rare moments of contrapuntal writing were memorable, none more so than the Quam olim Abrahae in the Offertorium – joyful to sing, and to hear. The University of Birmingham Voices had a clarity and freshness to their choral sound – a welcome benefit of young voices – and the divided sopranos and altos were suitably angelic in the Sanctus, a highlight of the work.

The CBSO provided sensitive support throughout, never overwhelming the singers in what is a hugely scored work including organ and harp. The brass in particular were warm and sonorous.

At the helm was experienced conductor Martyn Brabbins, never hurrying, always giving the music time to breathe, and carefully avoiding sentimentality when painting the musical canvas.

Anthony Bradbury

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