Live review – CBSO Chorus and Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Brahms’ German Requiem & Mozart Serenade for wind

Camilla Tilling (soprano), Florian Boesch (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 4 March 2020

Mozart Serenade for wind in C minor K388 (1782-3)
Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem Op.45 (1865-9)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current season features several major choral works that have long been central to this orchestra’s repertoire. While it has received numerous readings (most recently with Andrew Manze), Brahms‘s A German Requiem is not among these – so it was fascinating to hear what Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla might make of a piece that, though it has never fallen from favour since its premiere 152 years ago, remains a stern interpretive test in terms of projecting formal integration and an expressive essence more elusive for its restraint.

In the event the performance was a fine one – not least because this conductor found the right balance between flexibility of motion, without which the textures all too easily risk stolidity, and that seriousness of manner without which the music soon loses any sense of purpose. A balance as evident in the lengthy second movement, the inexorable tread of its outer sections framing an interlude of wistful grace then with the ensuing fugue building animatedly to its serene close, as in the brief fourth movement whose blithe exterior conceals music of artful dexterity. Camilla Tilling (above) summoned a winsome response in the fifth movement, a late but necessary addition in its opening-out the work’s emotional range, while Florian Boesch (below) was suitably if not unduly vehement in his initial contributions to the third and sixth; the former crowned by a fugue of visceral and unflagging energy, though that in the latter movement marginally lost focus as its grandly rhetorical gestures ran their (too?) predictable course.

It is in the first and seventh movements that Brahms’s highly personal concept of redemption through love is at its most explicit, MG-T duly having the measure of their calmly insistent searching towards eventual catharsis – even if the finale’s gradual winding-down resulted in less than the ideal repose. The CBSO Chorus was on fine form throughout – a tribute to the expertise of associate chorus director Julian Wilkins, who also made a pertinent contribution in an organ part no less crucial for its understatement; underpinning and often motivating an orchestration which adds in no small measure to the work’s humane and compassionate spirit.

A relatively short first half gave welcome opportunity for the CBSO’s woodwind to take the stage for an un-conducted reading of Mozart’s Serenade in C minor, last in his trilogy of such pieces which transcended an ostensibly lightweight genre and, in doing so, made possible the emotional substance of the symphonies that followed. Ensemble seemed a shade insecure in the opening Allegro, but its underlying intensity carried over to an Andante whose ineffable rapture was itself contrasted with the textural severity of the Menuetto. Best, though, was the final Allegro – a set of variation on an unassuming theme with the formal outline of a sonata-rondo made explicit with its major-key ending. Overall, a winning account of a piece whose scoring for wind octet has gained it less exposure than Mozart’s comparable orchestral works.

It also made for an unlikely while successful coupling and a similarly thought-provoking one is scheduled for next Tuesday, MG-T making her first foray into Bruckner with the erstwhile elusive Sixth Symphony alongside the deceptive simplicity of Bartók‘s Third Piano Concerto.

Further listening

Here is a Spotify playlist of music from the concert. The CBSO have not recorded either of these works before but these are fine alternatives:

For further information on the current season of CBSO concerts, visit the orchestra’s website

Wigmore Mondays – Florian Boesch & Malcolm Martineau in Schumann & Wolf


Florian Boesch (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 4 July 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

Available until 3 August

What’s the music?

Schumann Die beiden Grenadiere Op.49/1; Abends am Strand Op.45/3; Die feindlichen Brüder Op.49/2

Märzveilchen Op.40/1; Muttertraum Op.40/2; Der Soldat Op.40/3; Der Spielmann Op.40/4 (all 1840) (20 minutes)

Wolf Goethe Lieder: Der Schäfer; Phänomen; Wandrers Nachtlied; Anakreons Grab; Harfenspieler I – III (18 minutes)

Schumann Belsatzar Op.57 (1840) (5 minutes)


Florian Boesch has recorded a disc of Schumann but only one of the songs in this concert (Belsatzar). Here is a playlist containing all of the songs, using recordings made by the great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

About the music

1840 was an extraordinary year for Robert Schumann’s musical productivity. His so-called ‘year of song’, it saw him write 138 songs in total – including the eight in this recital program. Among the choice are four settings of Heine, which certainly preyed on the composer’s dark side.

In a similar vein, the year 1888 was a hugely productive one for the song composer Hugo Wolf. The tenor Ian Bostridge wrote this very fine introduction to the songs of Wolf for the Guardian in 2006. He wrote a whole songbook setting some of Goethe’s poetry, collected in 22 songs through 1888 and 1889, in the composer’s late twenties. The seven we hear are illustrations of the composer’s ability to combine melodic originality and a piano part that helps set the words in context, including the three songs of the downtrodden harpist.

Performance verdict

Florian Boesch’s baritone is an extraordinary instrument, and it is perfectly suited to the darker recesses of these Schumann settings, especially the Heine songs. Here is some of the composer’s most descriptive vocal music, and it is incredibly effective in this performance, not just for Boesch’s insights but for Malcolm Martineau’s ever colourful piano pictures. Here the colours are predominantly grey and black, but the steely edge to his lower register tone is crucial to the impact of the text and makes the moments of lighter relief – for there are a few! – ever more telling.

Similar forces are at work in the music of Wolf, which Boesch brings to thoughtful life. He is particularly effective in the slower songs such as Wandrers Nachtlied, where he and Martineau exhibit wonderful control of the drawn out phrases.

What should I listen out for?


1:48 Die beiden Grenadiere (The two grenadiers) text

The piano’s terse introduction is quickly picked up by the baritone, who sings of the battle in dark tones. At 4:18 the song breaks into the melody of La Marseillaise, as the French grenadier expresses his wish to be buried on home soil should he die.

5:13 Abends am Strand text

A chilling song.

8:47 Die feindlichen Brüder (The hostile brothers) text

The singer and piano are closely aligned here. Initially the mood is a brooding one in preparation for the brothers’ fight, but then hostilities break out and the tempo quickens considerably, the piano stooping ever lower, well below the range of the singer.

11:20 Märzveilchen Op.40/1 (March violets) text

The mood lightens a little for Schumann’s celebration of the flowers, described by the poet as ‘a pair of laughing blue eyes’.

12:54 Muttertraum Op.40/2 (A Mother’s Dream) (Adelbert von Chamisso) text

The piano part is characteristically intimate for this soft reverie – but the peace does not last long, for there is a dark side in the form of a raven outside the window (from 14:10) at which point the singer’s tone gets progressively darker, to the depths of the end.

15:26 Der Soldat Op.40/3 (The Soldier) (Adelbert von Chamisso) text

There is a military air from the start of the piano introduction, with fanfares and ceremony, but again the mood is steely dark, right through to the drama of the bullets fired in the last verse, where the poet ‘shot him through the heart’.

18:20 Der Spielmann Op.40/4 (The Fiddler) (Adelbert von Chamisso) text

There are bright festivities at the start of this song, but again it is not long until darker thoughts emerge, the baritone sinking lower in his range as he sings of the bride of the story, who ‘looks like whitewashed death’.


23:29 Der Schäfer (The Shephard) text

A darkly humourous song about a lazy shepherd, set by Wolf with some far-reaching harmonies and lazily decorated piano lines.

24:57 Phänomen (Phenomenon) text

A slow song, offering consolation at its end.

26:52 Wandrers Nachtlied (Wanderer’s Night Song) text

A slow and deeply sorrowful song, with long, drawn-out phrases – completed by Martineau’s soft postlude, lost in thought.

30:06 Anakreons Grab (Anakreon’s Grave) text

The contemplation at Anacreon’s Grave is not as sorrowful as one might think, ‘beautifully graced with verdant life’ in Goethe’s words. The song speaks of rest rather than torment.

32:45 Harfenspieler I text

Not surprisingly the piano imitates the harp beautifully at the start, though the vocal line that follows is quite stern, the singer imploring ‘leave me to my torment’!

36:25 Harfenspieler II text

Another predominantly slow setting, portraying a wretched man with dark tone in the singer’s voice and a reserved piano part.

38:49 Harfenspieler III text

The most dramatic of the three Harfenspieler settings, a tormented singer, in ringing tones, lamenting how the heavenly powers ‘let the wretched man feel guilt’.


43:26 Belsatzar (Belshazzar) text

This extraordinary song runs through a whole gamut of moods and emotions. It begins with the Babylonian king singing with great bravado, his boasting and the piano’s tumbling figures adding to the sense of giddiness. At 45:24 he proclaims, ‘I am the king of Babylon!’ After this the song turns, the king fearful, until the famous writing on the wall passage, which sends a chill through the spine from 46:17. There is no coming back from here for the king, murdered by the end.


49:45 Described as ‘Twitter of the nineteenth century’ by Florian Boesch, this is Schumann’s Verratene Liebe Op 40/5 – another von Chamisso text – and it’s over in 45 seconds!

Further listening

Florian Boesch is a remarkable talent – and has forged a formidable partnership with Malcolm Martineau. Here they are in a complete album of Schumann, including the first of the composer’s Liederkreis cycles: