Brahms Requiem

Introducing the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society’s November concert in Tonbridge School Chapel on Saturday, conductor Robin Morrish drew the attention of the audience to the texts of the works we would hear. Remembrance and the contemplation of our mortality, both from a religious and a human point of view, would reflect the mood of the music in Bruckner’s motet Christus Factus Est, Strauss’s Four Last Songs and in Brahms’s Requiem.

The choir was on top form, beginning with a striking ‘Christus!’ as they presented Bruckner’s fascinating mixture of Gothic austerity and Romantic passion. Subtly backed by brass instruments, this was a vital, expressive and dramatic presentation of the motet, and an impressive way to begin the concert. Throughout the evening the choral singing would be appreciated for its accuracy, variety of tone colours, good intonation and strong communication with the audience.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of the evening was the opportunity to enjoy the vocal skills and musicianship of the two soloists, Helen-Jane Howells and Piran Legg. Helen-Jane’s wonderful voice and unerring musicianship were heard to great effect in Strauss’s elegiac Four Last Songs. Here the voice becomes another strand in the masterly polyphonic texture, and the purity and expressiveness of Helen-Jane’s voice was ideal for this music. Vocal colour supported by beautiful harmonic changes amid a shimmering orchestral texture are the key to this work, and this blend was achieved to such perfection by soloist, orchestra and conductor, that members of the audience felt that they wanted to hear the music again – immediately!

Piran Legg’s commanding and powerful voice with its rich baritone register made its impact immediately in the third movement of the Brahms Requiem. The wealth of vocal colour and dynamic range he demonstrated were ideal for this music. Helen-Jane’s role in ‘Ye now have sorrow’ allowed her to show quiet, reflective singing and sensitive musicianship. We hope to hear these young soloists again in Tonbridge before long.

The orchestra goes from strength to strength, ably led by Penelope Howard. Accompanying a large choir requires one sort of skill from the players, but that required in such a delicate and flexible work as the Strauss songs is another matter altogether. This is almost chamber music in that the players must be aware of their musical line as part of a complex texture and respond with musical understanding and alertness to conductor and soloist. The success with which they achieved this demonstrated their own musicianship and their sense of unity of purpose with both soloist and conductor. Robin Morrish conducted with authority, showing his understanding of detail, but within the context of shaping long and often complex musical structures. The rapport between him and his musical forces is always apparent, exemplifying the teamwork which is such an obvious feature of the Society’s music making.

Tonbridge is indeed fortunate to have musicians of such calibre to share their skills and musical friendship with their enthusiastic and loyal audience.

Roger Evernden