Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Gergiev @ Barbican Hall, London

30, 31 March 2013

The London Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor Valery Gergiev rounded off their exploration of the music of Szymanowski and Brahms with magisterial performances of their greatest choral works.

Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater is a semi-religious work more about personal spirituality than Christian belief. The composer’s original concept was to write a kind of ‘peasant requiem’, reflecting the rough-hewn devotion of the people he had come to know in the Tatra Mountains. This evolved into a setting of the Virgin Mary’s lament at the foot of the cross. Although Szymanowski polished up his treatment of the text, he retained plenty of folk elements, as well as references to Renaissance church music.

Six months after the start of their Szymanowski-Brahms programme, the LSO and Gergiev were well able to handle the dark harmonies, melodic intensity and occasional eruptions of brilliant orchestration that characterise the Stabat Mater. All they needed was a strong chorus and a good trio of soloists to give it full justice. This they largely got. The London Symphony Chorus, under director Simon Halsey, gave a versatile and nuanced performance. The demotic hymnal passages in the a cappella fourth movement could have done with more rough edging, but there was little to fault elsewhere. Soprano Sally Matthews was ideally suited to the keening lament of the first movement and the intense melody in the final prayer. Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova provided sterling support, while stand-in baritone Kostas Smoriginas (replacing an ill Gerald Finley) displayed great clarity, despite being rather swamped by the chorus and orchestra in the second movement.

Like Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, Brahms’s German Requiem is not a liturgical work but a personal expression of human faith, set to a text which Brahms himself compiled from various Christian sources. The death of the composer’s mother and the memory of Robert Schumann account for the dark orchestration and the mood of resigned serenity which Gergiev and the LSO captured so well. Indeed, it was probably their best interpretation of Brahms’ music this season. Only a sharp flute introduction marred the magic of the sublime fourth movement, smudging the entry of the choir, which never quite eased back into the score.

Elsewhere, the London Symphony Chorus surpassed itself. This was just as well, since the chorus carries the main weight of the Requiem, leaving it dangerously exposed for most of the running time. The meaning of Brahms’ carefully constructed text was fully and sensitively imparted through the music, and the choir’s diction was crystal clear. The three soloists (with Christopher Maltman stepping in this time for Gerald Finley) again provided moments of real expressiveness and insight. But it was the chorus which merited the final thunderous applause.

Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk

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