19 Aug 2013

Prom 47: Brahms — A German Requiem

In the first of her two visits to the Royal Albert Hall this summer, Marin Alsop led the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and its associated Choir through three nineteenth-century works which are united by their romantic intensity and progression from darkness to light.

It was apparent from the first quiet, probing pulses of the basses, accompanying the gentle rise and fall of cellos and violas, that the choice of period-instruments for Brahms’ German Requiem — a work of magnificent power and spiritual grandeur — was a wise one. Above this mild, mellifluous platform every word of the Choir of Enlightment’s calm opening pronouncement was crystalline. This is not a liturgical mass for the dead but rather a personal testament designed to console the living — it was composed after the death of the composer’s mother, and inspired also by memories of his beloved friend, Richard Schumann — and Brahms’ ‘message’ was nobly evident in the Choir’s opening words: ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen,/ den sie sollen getröstet werden’ (Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted). Alsop consistently gave the text — garnered by the composer himself from Luther’s German Bible and from the Apocrypha — room to speak without undue force, and the result was a remarkably intense quietude matched elsewhere by an equally dignified and moving radiance.

The second movement, ‘Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras’ (For all flesh is as grass), began with fateful gravity, the timpani’s dark, funereal pulses sensitively articulated by Adrian Bending. Legend has it that a pre-premiere run-through of the first three movements of the Requiem were somewhat sabotaged by the relentless fortissimo pounding of an over-enthusiastic timpanist; here, and throughout the work, Bending offered a master-class in percussion playing, achieving tense restraint, insistent power, and building to perfectly judged, thrilling climaxes. The movement roved through alternating passages of despair and resignation before the Choir’s grandiloquent outburst, ‘Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Weigkeit’ (But the Word of the Lord endureth for ever).

Baritone Henk Neven intoned the opening words of the third movement, 'Herr, lehre doch mich,/ dass ein End emit mir haben muss’ (Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days), with composure tinged with anxiety. Deftly crafting the humbling exchanges between soloist and chorus, in which Neven wonderfully conveyed both the fears and hopes which define human mortality, Alsop effectively controlled the structure and accumulating tension, before the latter was released by the timpani’s affirmative pedal Ds in the vigorous, up-lifting — but never bombastic — fugal conclusion, ‘Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand,/ und keine Qual rühret sie an’ (But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall be torment touch them).

After the joyous simplicity of the subsequent assuring chorus, ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Herr Zebaoth’ (How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts), the radiant purity of soprano Rachel Harnish’s graceful, floating lines wonderfully expressed the restful comforts of the text, a quiet confession of the composer’s faith. Neven’s interchanges with the Choir in ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’ (‘Now we have no dwelling place’) resumed the forward motion, the chorale-like rhythms and blend of traditional and fresh harmonies driving the music purposefully towards the fugal conclusion. In the final movement Alsop reasserted the solemn, but sweet, nobility of the opening bars; the quiet benediction of the close, ‘Selig sind die Toten’ (Blessed are the dead) was deeply affecting.

This was a wonderful performance in which Alsop drew forth the underpinning mood of the Lutheran chorales which are the foundation for so many of the melodies, sustaining a consistent aura of lyrical splendour and combining the movements, which can sometimes feel disparate and lacking a clear dramatic progression, into a convincing whole.

The programme began with Brahms’ Tragic Overture. Alsop captured the sombre mood but did not quite sustain the momentum, especially in the slower developmental central section, and she struggled to gather the various, sometimes extensive, episodes into a structurally coherent whole. Here the choice of period instruments seemed less successful, not fully able to summon the oppressive weight or dynamic contrasts of the composer’s orchestral canvas. The textures were crisp, however, and there was some beautifully relaxed piano playing from the horns and woodwind. The surge towards the terse conclusion was fittingly stormy.

Schumann’s Fourth Symphony completed the programme, in which Alsop’s tempi were brisker and this helped to define the thematic links between the movements and create a strong sense of a unified whole. Those who disparage the composer’s overly dense instrumentation were here refuted by the lightness and clarity of the OAE’s orchestral conversations and the even balance of timbres. The dark brooding of the double basses (all eight of them) was neatly countered by the sheer sonorities of the upper strings and woodwind solos. An enchanting oboe solo from Michael Niesemann introduced the second movement, a graceful Romance in which the violins found a translucent elegance, inspired by some wonderful playing by leader Kati Debretzeni. A spirited Scherzo gave way to more temperate Trios, before an upwelling into the robust, exuberant Finale, in which Alsop — who conducted from memory throughout the concert — demonstrated an energetic enthusiasm which bodes well for September 7th, when she will become the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms.

There was much fine playing from the OAE. But, it was the precision and thoughtful poise of the Choir of Enlightenment which lifted this performance from ‘good’ to something special.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Brahms: Tragic Overture; Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D Minor; Brahms: A German Requiem; Rachel Harnisch, soprano; He nk Neven, baritone; Marin Alsop, conductor; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Choir of the Enlightenment. Royal Albert Hall, London, Saturday, 17th August 2013.