The Royal Festival Hall reverberates with Brahms.
There are, of course, many ways to perform Brahms’ ‘A German Requiem’. The last two times I was present at a performance of this profound hymn to humanity, Marin Alsop conducted the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment. Pared back orchestral forces playing on original instruments, alongside the professional choristers of the Choir of the Enlightenment, were a revelation. Textures were clear, and the lighter orchestral timbres forced me to marvel anew at Brahms’ magical orchestration, and the myriad of colours that lie therein.
Seeing the forces conductor Edward Gardner had amassed for his performance at the helm of the London Philharmonic Orchestra came as a shock. Eight double basses, 16 first violins, and the rest of the orchestra in proportion, as well as two choirs – the LPO Choir and The Rodolfus Choir – signalled a very different approach to Alsop’s. I guess it comes down to personal taste but putting that aside for a moment, the work’s unique voice and character – this is a conciliatory requiem devoid of the hellfire and damnation present in others – was superbly realised by all involved.
Not surprisingly, given Brahms was an atheist, he eschewed the words of the standard Latin Requiem Mass text turning instead to biblical excerpts, none of which ever mention Christ. The notion of humanism is writ large throughout this work, and on each successive hearing it becomes clearer that Brahms’ intention was to write a requiem for the living, rather than the dead, as many commentators have suggested since its first complete performance in 1869.
The massed choral forces excelled from the very start – mesmerising as they ushered in the start of the work, ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they that mourn)’ in hushed tones – and raising the roof with a menacing yet thrilling ‘Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras (For all flesh is as grass)’ – accompanied by superb timpani playing from Simon Carrington. There was no fudging of the counterpoint in ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely are thy dwellings), while each fugal entry was clear and precise.
“Seeing the forces conductor Edward Gardner had amassed for his performance at the helm of the London Philharmonic Orchestra came as a shock”
Roderick Williams, with crystal clear diction, allowed his gloriously rich baritone to take flight in ‘Herr, lehre doch mich (Lord, let me know thine end), while summoning up seemingly endless reserves of tone for the more declamatory passages in ‘Denn wir haben keine bleibende Statt (For here we have no abiding city)’. Given how radiantly Christiane Karg sang ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ (And ye now therefore have sorrow)’, it’s a shame we only hear the soprano soloist once.
The final section, ‘Selig sind die Toten (Blessed are the dead)’ was musical balm for the soul, holding the audience enrapt even after the last chord had died away. Gardner clearly adores this work, which was evident in the loving way he shaped each section, drawing expressive and alert playing from all sections of the orchestra. Balance was exceptional throughout, and although his approach was robust and big-boned, textures were never smudged in the process.
The concert began with a spirited and engrossing performance of Lili Boulanger’s setting of Psalm 129 – its six, short minutes giving notice of a unique musical voice, sadly curtailed by her tragic death at the age of 25. With vivid word-painting for the choir, rich orchestral textures, and harmonic daring, this is a mini-masterpiece that received a glowing performance from the LPO forces.
Gardner and his players concluded the first half of this imaginatively programmed concert with a spellbinding performance of Messiaen’s iridescent ‘Le tombeau resplendissant’. Written when he was only 25, and not long after his mother’s death, you can hear the young French composer beginning to forge his unique musical style in virtually every bar.
Altogether this was another brilliantly curated and executed programme – something that’s becoming the norm these days for the LPO under their new principal conductor. And long may it continue.