Brahms fills St Stephens with glory
A still and sunny Saturday evening in Guernsey can be considered one of the more difficult circumstances in which to draw an audience into a darkened church. Consider then this last weekend. Stepping out of the sunlight into the dim nave, astonishingly, it was clear that finding a seat in St Stephens would be a mission. Something special was anticipated.
The occasion was a performance by the Guernsey Chamber Choir, under the baton of Helen Grand, of Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzes and Deutsches Requiem, accompanied by Sebastian Grand and Tom Hicks. These two superb young pianists, taught by Mervyn Grand, are both originally local boys who’ve won awards and achieved international renown in such venues as the Bridgewater Hall, Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Barbican, both as soloists and accompanists. And now, sharing a keyboard elbow to elbow, I was struck by their ease and intimate musical communication, suggesting links that predated all their subsequent successes.
Brahms’s love songs, impetuous, dramatic, sentimental and exuberant, are not easy to perform. Moving with mercurial swiftness as they do, an uncertain hand on the tiller could lose control in the tides of emotion. This is where Helen Grand impresses as a conductor. A restrained and precise figure, she has her singers’ full focus and confidence, so enabling the rapid shifts of tempo and mood to travel from baton to ear without loss of clarity. Ripe fruit and meadows wafting sweetness on the breeze – the beauty of such deceptive simplicity depends on balancing the voices in a way that seems effortless. It did. Tina James (alto) and Niall McCathie (tenor) richly embellished the first half with their solo voices.
After interval the Chamber Choir showed their range, moving from the ephemeral to the eternal in Brahms’s challenging German Requiem, bringing out the work’s deepfelt importance. The fourhanded piano was often the virtuoso; soloist not mere accompaniment. The intimacy of quiet passages was matched across the voices, so when jubilation swelled and spilled forth, the release felt all the more uplifting for its united spontaneity.
Casey-Joe Rumens, the wonderfully supple bass in Lord Teach Me (Herr, lehre doch mich) shaped the phrases with emotion that belies his youth. The sense of hope and striving eased us towards the comfort of the sublimely beautiful movement, ‘How lovely are thy dwelling places’. Movement 5, ‘O Death where is thy sting?’ saw soprano Debbie Biddeau lift her message of consolation with pure and effortless generosity, to hang shimmering overhead. And then, the Last Trumpet – genuinely thrilling, as the vocal magnificence surged above the piano’s surehanded foundations.
At the end of such gloriously climactic chaos, there was a rustle of spontaneous applause, but Helen led us safely back to the serenity of the finale. Its bell-like chimes and sense of grace felt like an undeserved blessing. Four hands playing as two. A choir of longstanding friends and musical colleagues. A family whose talents have contributed immeasurably to the homegrown musical eminence of the island. No surprise to hear on the way out, variations on 'how fortunate music lovers are here in Guernsey’.
Guernsey Press 3rdAugust 2019, Julia Meredith