Although media attention has been focussed on Marin Alsop as the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms (and about time too), history was also being made at this, her first concert at this year’s festival, as Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem was receiving its first performance here on period instruments. The results were revelatory.
Brahms’ vision for his Requiem is unique as he discards the hellfire and damnation rhetoric of the Latin liturgical mass, opting instead for a far more earth-bound, conciliatory message drawn from texts from the Lutheran Bible. There is no mention of Jesus, nor is there any presence of fear or judgment, and given that the composer almost called this piece ‘A Human Requiem’, this will explain why.
The tempi that Alsop adopted were brisk, yet if anything this only helped to enhance the profound humanity of the work, and given that she was working with period instruments, textures had a wonderful transparency simply not achievable in this repertoire with modern instruments.
Much of Brahms’ choral writing is redolent of Bach, and Alsop’s approach gave the fugues a lightness that allowed for crystalline clarity, which is not to say that the performance was without gravitas. The second movement, ‘Denn alles Fliesch, es ist wie Gras’, had a portentous tread that was reinforced by timpanist Adrian Bending’s exemplary playing. Indeed all the members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment played as if their lives depended on it.
Baritone soloist Henk Neven displayed a lieder singer’s attention to detail to the text in his two solos, whilst soprano Rachel Harnisch produced angelic tone in the fifth movement, ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’.
Despite the excellence of the orchestra and the soloists the most outstanding contribution of the evening came from the Choir of the Enlightenment. They produced the most homogenous sound I think I’ve ever heard from a choir and although not large in number by today’s standards, they certainly raised the rafters in ‘Denn alles Fleisch’, yet were able to produce some consistently beautiful pianissimo singing, nowhere more so than in the opening chorus ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen’ and in the closing passages of the work, ‘Selig sind die Toten’. They rightly received the loudest ovation of the night.
In the first half we were treated to an impassioned performance of Brahms’ Tragic Overture and a dramatically charged rendition of Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor. Alsop conducted the entire evening from memory, and once you’ve heard these works played with such gusto on period instruments, there really is no going back.
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