The lack of an accessible programme only mildly marred an afternoon of pleasure at the Barbican Hall
Brahms wasn’t a great one for large-scale choral works; there’s the German Requiem, of course, but after that, everything is small or medium-sized. Three of these mid-length works have a Greek flavour to them: Nänie (a contemplation on the triumphant tragedy inherent in the deaths of classical heroes); Gesang der Parzen (‘Song of the Fates – Iphigenia’s gloomy ponderings on divine indifference) and Schicksalslied (‘Song of Destiny’ – musings on death by Hyperion, Hölderlin’s fictional protagonist in the Graeco-Turkish war). It was a treat, then, to hear all three of them given first class accounts by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Nathalie Stutzmann – whose conducting career (in addition to a much lauded singing career) has earned her many plaudits.
Stutzmann carried the performers through the emotionally fervid texts, with a clear understanding of Brahms’ Romantic mannerisms of timbre, dynamic and tempo, and an engagingly balletic platform presence, the contrasting openings providing ample illustration. Nänie’s pastoral beginning gave us precisely matched tone from woodwind and horns, with gentle entries from sopranos and tenors; Gesang der Parzen’s robust first bars were imparted with all the energy demanded of them (as were, later, the well co-ordinated exchanges between the upper and lower voice parts, and the magnificently sinister horns and bassoons); Schicksalslied slid into being with the warm textures so characteristic of Brahms’ writing (and the return of that warmth in the cellos for ‘Heilige Saiten’, in the altos’ silky first entry, and in the chorus’ controlled legato sections, was delicious). There was a slight feeling that the chorus had spent less time rehearsing Nänie than the other two works (albeit that Gesang der Parzen’s ending seemed to become a little confused), but these are minor quibbles. The only major downside (in the absence of a proper programme – Barbican: please sort out your WiFi, so an e-programme can be accessed) was the strangely bumpy translation of the text in the surtitles.
“Stutzmann carried the performers through the emotionally fervid texts…”
Even without the resonance of knowing that Tchaikovsky died (possibly by suicide) only shortly after his 6th symphony’s first performance, the work packs an emotional punch. Crammed full of yearning melodies, rich harmonies and a full abandonment to musical melodrama (as, indeed, Tchaikovsky intended with its title: Pathétique) from that tune in the first movement to the slowing double bass heartbeat at its close, it leaves listeners almost too wrung out to applaud.
Stutzmann and the orchestra revelled in this, giving us what we wanted: a splendid breadth and intensity to the melodic material, bags of heft to the more frenetic passages in the first movement, an energetic lightness of touch to the third movement’s odd 5/4 ‘Viennese with a stammer’ waltz and a full on swallowed orchestral sob at the opening of the final movement.
But it wasn’t all played for schmaltz; for sure, those string swirls up to the opening of ‘big tune’ phrases were just the right side of overdone, but Stutzmann knows her craft, and brought out some well-considered emphases throughout the work. The light strings and agile woodwind in the first movement were a joy, as was the tone of the violins in lower register at the recapitulation of the main theme. The ‘cello passages in the second movement had the usual glow to them, but they also had a charmingly lithe quality. That ‘skip in the step’ of the third movement was subtly emphasised (especially in the clarinet iterations) – such that, amid all the tragedy, there were moments of lighter beguilement – and the keening bassoon passages at the opening of the fourth movement were really brought to the fore.