The middle of the 19th century was the high point for music in the home. As an affluent and educated middle class grew up across northern Europe, music was in demand for social gatherings – pieces for solo piano, instrumental or vocal ensembles, anything to brighten the winter evenings before radio and television came along to do it for us.
During the course of this year the music of Brahms is providing a running theme at Kings Place. The intimate size of the main hall means that the “Brahms Unwrapped” series cannot accommodate his biggest works, but that leaves space for the wealth of his chamber music, including the less familiar songs for vocal ensemble.
Over three concerts at the weekend The Sixteen brought their inimitable professionalism to this essentially homely music. Brahms left easily enough in this category to fill three evenings, especially if one included smaller pieces for women’s or men’s choirs, but The Sixteen decided to vary the fare: the first two programmes embraced chamber music by Robert and Clara Schumann, Brahms’s close musical friends, and the third was devoted to Ein deutsches Requiem in the version for piano duet.
For the opening concert The Sixteen fielded just eight singers. In the first half they sang two groups of Brahms’s Vocal Quartets, Op 64 and Op 92, two voices to each part. The emotional range of this music stays very much within its comfort zone, evoking the warm glow of an autumn evening or the welcoming embrace of home and hearth, but the musical language is rich, as Brahms explores harmonies that follow unexpected paths. The two groups of songs were separated by Schumann in similar mood, with three movements from his Waldszenen sympathetically played by pianist John Reid.
The second half opened with more Schumann, including “Sommerruh”, a duet for two female voices, and the dreamy piano solo Arabeske, played by Christopher Glynn. Then the eight singers of The Sixteen returned for that favourite of all Brahms’s secular vocal music, the first set of the Liebeslieder Walzer for vocal ensemble and piano duet – homespun sentimentality with a folksy air. The Sixteen gave them perfectly manicured performances. Would Brahms have heard them so expertly sung in his day? It seems unlikely.