Swale Singers challenge and delight with their summer concert

The Swale Singers in St Andrew's Church, Aysgarth.

By Betsy Everett

With themes of death and loss, mourning and solemn reflection, a requiem might not be everybody’s, or even anybody’s, choice for a summer concert in a country church.

But this was the Swale Singers, bold and innovative as ever, under the sure direction of their new(ish) conductor Peter Stallworthy, and this was A German Requiem, arguably Brahms’s most popular choral work, performed in St Andrew’s Church, Aysgarth, as part of the Swaledale Festival, itself never known to fight shy of a challenge in arranging its annual programme.

And what a challenge it was: as much for the audience (well, me) as for the 40-strong choir, none in the first flush of youth but determined and vigorous, full-throated and sturdy as ever. 

For Peter it was his Swaledale Festival debut and it is to his and his choir’s credit that they chose to present a deep and moving choral work with a fascinating history, rather than a jolly concoction of “popular classics,” never an option for the Swale Singers, you feel.

If that makes it sound like a stolid and worthy effort, just a competent rendering of an epic masterpiece, it’s far from the truth. From the serene and sombre beginning, through the loud and uplifting middle section, to the “gentle conclusion” that brings it full circle, it was a genuine delight, and the audience left this lovely choir and their leader with no doubt of their appreciation.

The four-hand piano accompaniment with Corinne Johnson and William Dore began the concert, with the choir rising to their feet to begin the first movement: “Blest are they that sorrow bear, for to them shall be given comfort,” a clue to the quiet optimism which will pervade the whole piece, rooted in double tragedies: the death of Brahms’s mother, Johanna, and – earlier – his “friend and inspiration” Robert Schumann.

It was at this very point, however, that my spirits sank as I realised – as any seasoned concertgoer (not me) would have done – that, acoustically, the front of the nave, only feet from the piano but further from the choir, was not the best place to be. For quite a while I felt the voices, presenting a soft and melodic sound, were overwhelmed: all I could hear, or was mainly aware of, was the piano.

In the third movement, the problem all but dissolved, as baritone soloist Edward Seymour commanded the stage and with the chorus presented the psalmist’s lament on the puzzle and torment of life, its brevity and uncertainty.

Moving a few pews back after the interval provided a more even experience, and the chance to fully savour the highlight of the evening, the glorious and seemingly effortless performance of soprano soloist Louise Wayman. 

“Is it my imagination or can you warm your hands on this guy?” an American student once asked me of a charismatic tutor. Words that sprung to mind as Wayman drew the audience to her with her rendering of  “I will comfort like as a mother giveth comfort,” evoking the memory of Johanna, Brahms’s mother.

The libretto is worthy of a reading itself, separate from the music, and it was a pity, I felt on reflection, that I didn’t have the text in front of me.

There’s neither time nor space to go into the intricacies of and background to the composition, but in these days of Google and Wiki and YouTube it’s not difficult to find for yourself, and the effort will be well-rewarded.

It was in cyberspace that I found this quote from conductor Paavo Järvi which neatly sums up the epic composition: “We always have this idea that Requiems are a mass for the dead. In a way, that’s what they’re supposed to be, but in this particular case, I think it’s a mass for the living.”

Meanwhile the Swale Singers’ own Peter Stallworthy, in a personal email to choir members, equally summed up the execution: “Well done on a performance which was authoritative, moving, and in other places full of joy. . .  I offer my sincere congratulations and thanks for an evening of memorable music making.” 

Which, in the end, says it all.

  • The Swale Singers rehearse for two hours on Sunday afternoons in term time in the Memorial Hall in Reeth and welcome enquiries from potential members. Contact secretary@swalesingers.com.
Conductor Peter Stallworthy directs the Swale Singers with soloist Louise Wayman