Towards Expressionism – Brighton16

A scorching Saturday ended blissfully with 45 minutes of choral delight from this excellent choir conducted by Matthew Jelf. His fascinating programme “Songs of the Dusk” spanned seventy years of late Romantic music. Brighton16 must have been rehearsing hard all afternoon but now appeared refreshed and alert to deliver this sophisticated cocktail of German song.

Matt Jelf

Rheinberger was only fifteen when he composed his sumptuous ‘Abendlied’, an evening song. Clearly, he was already a prodigious organist, with an obvious love of Bach. The choir’s confident and clear handling of his rich harmonic shifts and formal counterpoint was very reassuring.

Thus, when they began Brahms’ intense motet ‘Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen’, a lament from the Book of Job, we knew the music was in safe hands. With the pitch, the diction and the ensemble secure, we could sit back and enjoy the conductor’s interpretation.

Not long ago a work by Dame Ethel Smyth would have been an ‘item of particular interest’ but these days we know more than her tub-thumping ‘The March of the Women’. With ‘The Wreckers’ playing at Glyndebourne, she sits comfortably among the greats. In fact, in this concert I preferred her ‘Komm, süsser Tod’ over the Brahms. Brighton16 gave it a gravitas that led easily into the dramatic highpoint of the concert, Bruckner’s magnificent motet, ‘Christus factus est’. Jelf pulled out all the stops. The abrupt silences and the dynamic extremes worked especially well in the church’s unusual acoustic, where the double nave gave back some magical echoes.

The biggest risks and so most excitement came in ‘Der Abend’, a work for 16 voices by Richard Strauss of a Classical poem by Schiller. At one voice to a part, it was bound to tax the singers. Every member of the choir had a chance to shine, some with more tunes than others. The voices were distinct and no single voice stood out for long. Only someone actually following the score could tell if it was always accurate but the whole effect, at times a shimmering muddle, was glorious, comparable with the lushest moments of Strauss’s operatic orchestration.

After that rare treat came Max Reger’s ‘Schweigen’, a poem to Silence. My ears were now used to complex harmonies and unexpected modulations so I listened passively, enjoying the moment. After so much complicated music I was happily surprised by the last song, Schoenberg’s ‘Schein uns, du liebe Sonne’. Written between 1922-29 when he was otherwise developing his 12 tone music, this gentle folk song arrangement made a soothing finale to a splendid concert.

St Michael’s Church,
9 July 2022
Rating: ★★★★★
Andrew Connal

Leave a Comment

Related Articles