Schubert’s eighth symphony is a concert-hall standard, and the LSO gave it a decent rendering in terms of tonal quality. The hushed strings at the beginning of the first movement were mellow, and perfectly together, and the introduction of the opening theme in the woodwind was delicately handled; the nuances of dynamic in the second movement were adroitly observed, and the little woodwind dance before the crashing timpani breathed of the pastoral. But, apart from that slightly over-enthusiastic timpani, the performance lacked contrasts, and the unease that the piece should portray failed to materialise. Part of this was due to the pace – it weighed in at least five minutes longer than usual, as though embarrassed to be the only piece in the first half – but also, Fabio Luisi clearly enjoys his languor more than his bombast, with a resultant loss of edginess.
Brahms’ genius in Ein Deutsches Requiem was to create a work of scintillating contrast out of seven nominally slow movements, but it needs careful direction to achieve this, or else his lush orchestration can become muddy (which is often why Brahms’ own reduction of the piece for piano duet can feel a lot cleaner). Again, there was no complaint about the sound production from the orchestra – the low strings in the opening Selig sind were delicious, and the little double hairpins of dynamic were well executed – but the muddiness was present, and the piece needed more drama, and the insertion of some extra rubato on speeds; the last movement, in particular, was so slow that the rising scale passages in the strings under the held pedal notes of the chorus lost intensity.
The London Symphony Chorus fielded a large team, but it was perhaps over-large. Although they were excellent at producing an intensely hushed pianissimo (particularly at the start of the first movement), their next dynamic up seemed to be a solid mezzo-forte, with the result that there was little light and shade in the quieter movements, such as ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’; although Brahms doesn’t specify it, there was need for a semi-chorus. The choir’s solid fortissimo worked well in ‘Denn alles Fleisch’, but the same dynamic for the ‘Tod, wo ist dein Stachel’ section of the sixth movement needed much more attack and menace – a change of tone more than anything else, and it was possibly the uniform, slightly breathy, tone of the choir throughout the piece that also contributed to the lack of sparkle.
The two soloists turned in first-rate performances. Simon Keenlyside’s baritone has both edge and depth, and he provided longed-for contrast in both ‘Herr, lehre doch mich’ and ‘Denn wir haben hie.’ Julia Kleiter’s voice graced ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ with liquid tone.