John Eliot Gardiner has kicked off a two-year series of concerts exploring Brahms’ major orchestral works in the light of influences from earlier periods.
While Sunday saw the mighty Deutsche Requiem performed with works by Bach and Schtz, for the second of two evenings, he set that most mature of first symphonies against three of Schubert’s choral songs, as well as Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn and Alto Rhapsody.
If the programme for this second concert was glancing back in the direction of the classical era, what better place to start than Brahms’ own Haydn Variations, given a lightness and incisive edge by the period instruments of the Orchestre Rvolutionnaire et Romantique? Of course, the title of the piece is a misnomer, as Haydn didn’t write the St Antoni chorale (as Brahms believed) but borrowed it from another unknown composer.
The relationship between the selected Schubert songs and Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody is a direct one. These were works he particularly admired and the dark brooding Gruppe aus dem Tartarus (Scene from Hades) was one of only six Schubert lieder he orchestrated (as heard here). The Alto Rhapsody was profoundly influenced by these songs and is also linked with both An Schwager Kronos (To Coachman Chronos) and Gesang der Geister ber den Wassern (Song of the Spirits Over the Waters) through texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
His words for the latter are among the most striking and powerful in all lieder history, describing the tumultuous journey of a human soul from mountain heights to becalmed valley lowlands (“Soul of man how like water though art, Destiny of Man how like the wind!”). Schubert’s setting is extraordinarily moving and was immaculately performed by the men of the Monteverdi Choir and an enhanced string section (it was originally scored for two violas, two cellos, double bass and eight-part chorus).
Another Goethe text, Brahms’ own Winterreise (the Alto Rhapsody is a setting of an ode of that name), provided another overwhelming mood. Contralto Nathalie Stutzmann, described by Sir John in his introduction as suffering from a “stonking cold”, gave a deeply moving performance of this haunting work, an emotional experience that carried us through to the interval and beyond.
By contrast, the centrepiece taking up the whole of the second half of the concert, the First Symphony was less totally engaging. For all its drive and passion, and a dramatic, if again lightweight, reading by Gardiner with predictable precision and refinement in the woodwind solos, it felt at times like a brilliant academic exercise. Maybe, we have to wait for the melting loveliness of the later symphonies in future concerts in the series to be fully enraptured by Brahms’ late journey into symphonic form.