Apart from Brahms’s own arrangement of the orchestral element of his German Requiem for piano duet, there are many other versions – for chamber ensemble, for two pianos, for organ, for harmonium with and without piano, for brass band – and there is now Iain Farrington’s version for chamber ensemble (violin, viola, cello and double bass; flute, oboe and clarinet) and a crucial part for piano, played with great flair and insight on this Hyperion recording by Wei-Yi Yang. The eight players support the Yale Schola Cantorum’s choir of thirty-two (nine each of sopranos and basses; seven each of altos and tenors, the choral writing unchanged), and on this recording the balance sounds natural and well integrated.
Iain Farrington is prodigiously busy as a composer, arranger and concert organist, and anyone who heard his arrangement of Massenet’s Werther (for English Touring Opera in 2015) for violin, clarinet, cello and piano could not have failed to be impressed by his skill, imagination and feeling for style. He doesn’t include the quintessentially atmospheric German romantic horn in his instrumentation, so there isn’t that binding element between woodwinds and strings, and I wonder whether Farrington ever considered using a harmonium, which would have been in keeping with chamber ensembles in German music of this period. He gets a marvellous organ-like sonority (piano and prominent double bass) in ‘Denn alles Fleisch’, the drama of which is not compromised by the reduced forces.
In general, David Hill’s tempos would suit a full choral and orchestral version (sixty-six minutes is the same as Klemperer’s celebrated Philharmonia recording), and there are many moments – in the opening ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen’ especially – when the choir’s transparent sound has an apt, ethereal immediacy, and the consolatory conclusion is very affecting. The choir is also very responsive to Brahms’s choice of texts, and Hill (rather than the engineers) is very good at judging choral perspectives. Another big plus is Matt Sullivan’s beautiful, eloquent bass-baritone in his two solos, and there is an equally confident ‘Ihr habt nur Traurigkeit’ from Natasha Schnur. With singing and playing of such a high quality, this German Requiem has lost none of its revelatory potential.