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Imagine you were given the opportunity to have a masterclass from one of the world’s leading conductors of choral music on a significant work from the repertoire. This absorbing volume by conductor Helmut Rilling about Brahms’s choral masterpiece is just that. It draws on a lifetime’s experience of conducting Ein deutsches Requiem and everything that that entails. Rilling not only possesses an intimate knowledge of the score but is also immersed in the genesis of the work, its themes and motives, Brahms’s harmonic language and his orchestral technique. All this Rilling explores in direct, largely non-technical language, which allows even an average music lover to gain some new insights into this much loved work.

The title page includes the quotation ‘O Lord, what shall be my comfort?’ – and it offers a clue to Rilling’s central purpose in writing this book: what does Brahms wish to express in his Requiem? By looking in detail at Brahms’s sources (Biblical and musical) and analysing the music’s structure, Rilling draws his conclusions.

Following a brief introduction, Rilling examines each of the seven movements in turn, each chapter being generously illustrated by music examples in full score. (The sung text in the examples remains in the original language.) Perhaps a choral singer unaccustomed to reading even familiar works in full score might find this off-putting, but for a conductor or specialist student this should make for no difficulty. Rilling’s examples are always well chosen and illustrate points made in his text.

His final chapter is in some ways the most fascinating of all. Entitled ‘Considerations on Performance Practice’, Rilling offers his own highly practical guide to anyone conducting this work – from decisions about size of orchestra, use (or not) of the organ and the number of harps involved, to understanding and interpreting the tempi markings, Rilling is your ever-reliable mentor.

Originally published in German in 2016, the volume is here available in an idiomatic English translation. Should Carus Verlag have plans for further volumes of this type from Rilling – the great Bach choral works, the Missa solemnis, Elijah, would be my suggestions – then publisher and author are to be encouraged.

PHILIP REED Read the full review on Agora Classica

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