09 Aug 2018

Prom 33: Thea Musgrave, Phoenix Rising, and Johannes Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, op.45

I am not sure I could find much of a connection between the two works on offer here. They offered ‘contrast’ of a sort, I suppose, yet not in a meaningful way such as I could discern.

No matter: the concert was what it was, concluding in a truly excellent performance of Brahms’s German Requiem, infinitely preferable to a curiously vacuous one I heard last autumn – perhaps more the time of year for it – from starrier forces in Berlin .

First, however, came Thea Musgrave’s 1997 orchestral work, Phoenix Rising, its title taken from a sign outside a Virginia coffee shop, its programmatic subject matter that of, well, a phoenix rising from the ashes. Its opening éclat promised much, very much a presentiment of the sharpness – rhythmic, yet not only that – of the rest of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s performance under Richard Farnes. It could have been the prelude to a stage work; I could not help but wonder if it might have been better off that way. For the piece’s initial post-Peter Grimes dramatic tension dissipated somewhat, transforming in a different way from the phoenix, into a competent yet hardly earth-shattering tone poem. Unrepentantly tonal, it came to sound more like film music than a concert work. Visual theatrics, in which the excellent timpanist cued a bass drum player above, before downing his sticks and leaving the stage amused and/or puzzled, yet seemed to lack motivation in to the musical material (other than his ceasing to play for a while, before being heard at the end, off-stage). It was interesting to hear a Proms premiere from a composer long overlooked in this country; I doubt I should hasten to hear it again.

The introduction to the opening chorus of the Brahms, ‘Selig sing, die da Leid tragen’ – from the Beatitudes, of course – truly set the scene for the rest of Farnes’s reading. Combining serenity with a hint of harmonic grit often missed, he pointed to the location of meaning in Brahms’s harmony. It is all there, pretty much. In the words too, of course, but one might have a pretty good feeling for what this splendidly Lutheran humanist – in more than one sense – work was about even without. Or so one imagined. At any rate, the BBC Symphony Chorus, upon its entry, ensured that we never had to find out, its rounded tone of consolation just the thing – as was its diction. The movement remained founded, even grounded, upon its bass line, orchestral and choral. This was to be a ‘natural’, unaffected performance of the very best kind.

The following chorus’s roots in early music – not only Bach and Handel, not only Schütz, but earlier – were clear at its opening, without any need to underline, to highlight. Once again, the placing of chords, the path of harmonic progressions, mattered in work and performance, yet without a hint of pedantry. Soft, which is not to say weak, foreboding, ‘All flesh is as grass’, grew and grew through the great sarabande processional. Brahms may not have been a Believer, but he knew what belief and Belief were. The central section, ‘So seid nun geduldig…’, was taken more swiftly, with greater contrast, than often one hears; it worked very well indeed, heightening expectancy in words and music alike. A sense of return, musical as much as theological, was finely achieved thereafter, with the return of the opening material, prior to turning of the corner, clean and warm: the Lord’s Word would endure for ever. Again swifter than usual, the closing section worked splendidly, the foretelling of heavenly rejoicing almost akin to a choral climax in Haydn. Farnes shaped this music, as that of the whole, with powerful yet unobtrusive understanding.

Johan Reuter proved a sincere soloist, his diction also excellent, in ‘Herr, lehre doch mich’, the chorus engaged in a dark game, or perhaps better ritual, of versicle and response. Subtle darkening of instrumental colours as the psalmist reflected upon the humbreing of his days proved just as telling as the vocal line itself. A swift closing once again worked; it was not hard-driven, but a release that was again as much musical as a mere response to the words. Klemperer’s is not the only way. And yet, all the while, that pedal point resounded in a way the grand old man would surely have appreciated. The ensuing chorus, ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen,’ flowed beautifully, indeed beguilingly, without a hint of sentimentality.

Golda Schulz’s solo work in the next number, ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’, offered a near ideal blend of the ‘angelic’ and the ‘womanly’: the ‘Ewig-Weibliche’, one might almost suggest, in Goethian homage. I was put a little in mind of Edith Mathis (on Daniel Barenboim’s early recording, although there was perhaps greater range here. Maternal comfort – the death of Brahms’s mother almost certainly played some role here, just as the death of Webern’s mother would for so much of his œuvre – was apparent, was felt, with a nice sense of homage to Mendelssohn, delectable BBC woodwind and all, towards the close.

I wondered whether Reuter might have been a little forthright in ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’, but perhaps that was as much a matter of the Albert Hall acoustic as performance. At any rate, choral swallowing up of death and grave in victory proved a thing of awe, prior to another Haydn-Gloria-close: which, after all, is precisely what the words from Revelation suggest. This was not difference for the sake of it, but a keen response both to words and music. The final chorus, taken more or less attacca, reinforced the ‘cyclical’ element to Brahms’s vision. That is not quite the right word, I know, for we have been changed by what has happened in the meantime; yet tonally, there is – and here there was felt to be – a strong element of return. Farnes’s ability to maintain the longest of lines came in very handy here, as did his readily apparent long-term harmonic thinking. Blessed were these dead souls indeed.

Mark Berry

Golda Schulz (soprano)/Johan Reuter (bass-baritone)/BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Neil Ferris)/BBC Symphony Orchestra/Richard Farnes (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, Tuesday 7 August 2018.