Prom 47: Brahms — A German Requiem

It was apparent from the first quiet, probing pulses of the basses,
accompanying the gentle rise and fall of cellos and violas, that the choice of
period-instruments for Brahms’ German Requiem — a work of
magnificent power and spiritual grandeur — was a wise one. Above this mild,
mellifluous platform every word of the Choir of Enlightment’s calm opening
pronouncement was crystalline. This is not a liturgical mass for the dead but
rather a personal testament designed to console the living — it was composed
after the death of the composer’s mother, and inspired also by memories of
his beloved friend, Richard Schumann — and Brahms’ ‘message’ was nobly
evident in the Choir’s opening words: ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen,/ den
sie sollen getrˆstet werden’ (Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be
comforted). Alsop consistently gave the text — garnered by the composer
himself from Luther’s German Bible and from the Apocrypha — room to speak
without undue force, and the result was a remarkably intense quietude matched
elsewhere by an equally dignified and moving radiance.

The second movement, ‘Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras’ (For all
flesh is as grass), began with fateful gravity, the timpani’s dark, funereal
pulses sensitively articulated by Adrian Bending. Legend has it that a
pre-premiere run-through of the first three movements of the Requiem
were somewhat sabotaged by the relentless fortissimo pounding of an
over-enthusiastic timpanist; here, and throughout the work, Bending offered a
master-class in percussion playing, achieving tense restraint, insistent power,
and building to perfectly judged, thrilling climaxes. The movement roved
through alternating passages of despair and resignation before the Choir’s
grandiloquent outburst, ‘Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Weigkeit’ (But the
Word of the Lord endureth for ever).

Baritone Henk Neven intoned the opening words of the third movement, ‘Herr,
lehre doch mich,/ dass ein End emit mir haben muss’ (Lord, make me to know
mine end, and the measure of my days), with composure tinged with anxiety.
Deftly crafting the humbling exchanges between soloist and chorus, in which
Neven wonderfully conveyed both the fears and hopes which define human
mortality, Alsop effectively controlled the structure and accumulating tension,
before the latter was released by the timpani’s affirmative pedal Ds in the
vigorous, up-lifting — but never bombastic — fugal conclusion, ‘Der
Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand,/ und keine Qual r¸hret sie an’ (But
the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall be torment
touch them).

After the joyous simplicity of the subsequent assuring chorus, ‘Wie
lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Herr Zebaoth’ (How lovely is thy dwelling
place, O Lord of Hosts), the radiant purity of soprano Rachel Harnish’s
graceful, floating lines wonderfully expressed the restful comforts of the
text, a quiet confession of the composer’s faith. Neven’s interchanges with
the Choir in ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’ (‘Now we have no
dwelling place’) resumed the forward motion, the chorale-like rhythms and
blend of traditional and fresh harmonies driving the music purposefully towards
the fugal conclusion. In the final movement Alsop reasserted the solemn, but
sweet, nobility of the opening bars; the quiet benediction of the close,
‘Selig sind die Toten’ (Blessed are the dead) was deeply affecting.

This was a wonderful performance in which Alsop drew forth the underpinning
mood of the Lutheran chorales which are the foundation for so many of the
melodies, sustaining a consistent aura of lyrical splendour and combining the
movements, which can sometimes feel disparate and lacking a clear dramatic
progression, into a convincing whole.

The programme began with Brahms’ Tragic Overture. Alsop captured
the sombre mood but did not quite sustain the momentum, especially in the
slower developmental central section, and she struggled to gather the various,
sometimes extensive, episodes into a structurally coherent whole. Here the
choice of period instruments seemed less successful, not fully able to summon
the oppressive weight or dynamic contrasts of the composer’s orchestral
canvas. The textures were crisp, however, and there was some beautifully
relaxed piano playing from the horns and woodwind. The surge towards
the terse conclusion was fittingly stormy.

Schumann’s Fourth Symphony completed the programme, in which
Alsop’s tempi were brisker and this helped to define the thematic links
between the movements and create a strong sense of a unified whole. Those who
disparage the composer’s overly dense instrumentation were here refuted by
the lightness and clarity of the OAE’s orchestral conversations and the even
balance of timbres. The dark brooding of the double basses (all eight of them)
was neatly countered by the sheer sonorities of the upper strings and woodwind
solos. An enchanting oboe solo from Michael Niesemann introduced the second
movement, a graceful Romance in which the violins found a translucent
elegance, inspired by some wonderful playing by leader Kati Debretzeni. A
spirited Scherzo gave way to more temperate Trios, before an upwelling into the
robust, exuberant Finale, in which Alsop — who conducted from memory
throughout the concert — demonstrated an energetic enthusiasm which bodes
well for September 7th, when she will become the first woman to
conduct the Last Night of the Proms.

There was much fine playing from the OAE. But, it was the precision and
thoughtful poise of the Choir of Enlightenment which lifted this performance
from ‘good’ to something special.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Brahms: Tragic Overture; Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D
; Brahms: A German Requiem; Rachel Harnisch, soprano; He nk Neven, baritone; Marin Alsop, conductor; Orchestra of the
Age of Enlightenment; Choir of the Enlightenment. Royal Albert Hall, London,
Saturday, 17th August 2013.

image_description=Marin Alsop [Photo by Grant Leighton]
product_title=Prom 47: Brahms – A German Requiem
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Marin Alsop [Photo by Grant Leighton]