Rattle brings a wealth of experience to Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater and Brahms’ German Requiem.
Not one, but two choral works made up last Saturday’s London Symphony Orchestra programme at the Barbican. And there wasn’t a partridge or pear tree to be seen either, as Simon Rattle had chosen to pair two pieces designed to make the audience reflect on its own mortality – or at least our place in the world and what that means. Far from being a full, grinch-like onslaught on ‘the most wonderful time of the year’, Rattle’s choice of repertoire was vindicated, as he delivered a contemplative alternative to the frenetic razzamatazz that usually engulfs everyone at this time of year.
Combining the familiar, Brahms’ German Requiem, with a real rarity, Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, afforded the audience an embarrassment of choral riches. The Polish composer’s setting of the 13th century hymn to the Virgin Mary, depicting her suffering at Christ’s crucifixion, uses a text by Józef Janowski in his native tongue. It’s testament to the skill of the members of the LSO Chorus, and their distinguished director Simon Halsey, that they managed to make such a difficult language sound idiomatic.
Their commitment and relish with which they enunciated the text made the entire work come alive. Comprising six movements, and only 25 minutes in length in total, Szymanowski’s shimmering, vibrant score beguiled and enthralled in equal measure. It’s a piece close to Rattle’s heart, having recorded it with his City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra forces in the early ‘90s, and his affinity with Szymanowski’s highly personal musical idiom was evident in every bar.
“…Rattle’s choice of repertoire was vindicated…”
He had assembled a superb trio of soloists, including two native Polish speakers, soprano Iwona Sobotka and mezzo Hanna Hipp, and bass-baritone Florian Boesch. Sobotka’s thrilling singing – hints of metal with an authentic Slavic edge in the voice – was the perfect foil to Hipp’s profound and eloquent mezzo. Boesch coped heroically with Szymanowski’s climactic vocal lines but could have made more of the text.
After the revelations of the Stabat Mater, we were on more familiar territory with Brahms’ German Requiem. By setting a selection of biblical texts, rather than the traditional liturgical Latin text, Brahms takes us on a spiritual journey, devoid of the fire and brimstone that’s found elsewhere. Again, this is a work that Rattle has a long association and affinity with, and his approach was direct, and relatively fleet of foot.
With modest orchestral forces, there were only five double basses, orchestral textures were light and airy, allowing plenty of detail – particularly from the woodwind section – to shine through. Brahms makes the chorus the focus of the work and the demands he requires of them are formidable. From their hushed, barely audible entry in the first movement, ‘Selig sind, die da leid tragen’’ through to the final catharsis of ‘Selig sind die toten’, they sang with gusto, ardour and tenderness. There was a lot for them to sing, and they audibly tired towards the end of the evening – the fugue that closes the sixth movement sounded exposed, entries ragged – but overall they did justice to Brahms’ deeply personal choral masterpiece.
Sobotka returned and was eloquent in ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’, although her soprano is more dramatic than one usually hears in the part, whilst Boesch was persuasive in ‘Herr, lehre doch mich’, and fervent in ‘Denn wir haben hie’, deploying his well-schooled bass-baritone to telling effect.