Sunday 29 June 2008

Brahms: the Romantic - Philharmonia/Maazel, 28 June 2008 (2)

Royal Festival Hall

Brahms – Variations on a theme by Joseph Haydn, Op.56a
Brahms – Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45

Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
Philharmonia Chorus
Philharmonia Voices
Philharmonia Orchestra
Lorin Maazel (conductor)

With this concert, the Philharmonia and Lorin Maazel’s series, ‘Brahms: the Romantic’ reached its conclusion. It is perhaps a pity that none of the smaller vocal and choral works, or indeed the serenades and concertos, were included, but one cannot have everything. After a somewhat sluggish Third Symphony, I rather feared for the Haydn Variations. However, the statement of the St Anthony Chorale struck quite a different note. Deftly articulated and winningly phrased, it was followed by a series of well-characterised variations. The third, for instance, was rather swift – quite a relief! – and struck an aptly serenade-like note. Indeed, throughout the wind were pleasingly characterful. Christopher Cowie’s solo oboe shone in the fourth, as did the violas, once again commandingly led by the excellent Joel Hunter. There followed a lively, rhythmically taut fifth variation and a perky sixth with excellent horns. The seventh variation was graceful, without being skated over; Kenneth Smith was especially notable on the flute here, as once more were the oboe and violas. Hushed, confiding violins in the eighth led us into a noble finale, which exhibited both grace and a good sense of rhythmic and harmonic momentum. The whole orchestra, not least David Corkhill’s triangle, was permitted to shine in the final peroration. This was a fine reading of a work that often receives far less.

There could be no complaints of sluggishness in the German Requiem either; if anything, Maazel’s speeds may have erred on the other side. Certainly the opening sounded a little hasty, although one could appreciated a splendidly cultivated sound to the lower strings. Whilst the second movement, ‘Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras,’ was also on the fast side, it possessed a convincing sense of onward tread, although I found its ending somewhat perfunctory. It was only really the conclusion to the third movement, ‘Herr, lehre doch mich,’ that proved something of a scramble: a pity really, given the convincing role the preceding pulsating of the tonic pedal had played in providing an apt sense of security to the musical events above. In general, the orchestra did an excellent job, ably directed by Maazel. For instance, one could well imagine the woodwind section in the first movement as purveyors of funereal Harmoniemusik, should the near-contradiction be permitted. There was a true sense of passage from darkness into light in the transition to the fugal section of the second movement: the brass section was resplendent and the organ (Malcolm Hicks) added a great deal too. The same could be said of their role in the sixth movement, ‘Denn wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt’, although the raising of the dead incorruptible was a little rushed; the section, ‘Tod, wo ist dein Stachel? …’ was much better in this respect. It is quite a tribute to successful orchestral balancing that one could clearly hear the Beethovenian piccolo (Keith Bragg) above all of this. Violins sounded especially sweet-toned in the consoling fourth movement, ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohunungen’, although, after a slightly galumphing fugal section, it was a relief to return to the preceding mood of a celestial Liebeslieder waltz. Schützian trombones were given a welcome opportunity to shine in the final movement, ‘Selig sind die Toten’, an invitation they accepted wholeheartedly. The harps added a welcome glimpse of something hereafter at the very end, whilst they had sounded strangely prominent in the first movement.

What of the singing? The combined forces of the Philharmonia Chorus and Philharmonia Voices sounded very good on the whole and proved attentive to the demands of the words as well as the music. There was, for example, a wonderful filling out of tone on the word ‘Freuden’ (‘joy’) in the first movement, although the sopranos here could occasionally sound a little shrill. The first return of the opening material in the second movement (and parallel passages) again provided a good, full sound from both chorus and orchestra, splendidly underlain by the kettledrums. I mentioned the somewhat effortful contribution from the chorus in the Handelian fugal section of the fourth movement, but this was very much the exception. The other shortcoming – although I am not sure whose fault this was – was a couple of cases of slight disjuncture between chorus and orchestra in the final movement. However, this movement on the whole evinced an apt sense of reprise, return, and yet progress too, in coming to terms with whatever loss may have afflicted us. Heidi Grant Murphy was adequate as a soprano soloist. I have heard worse but she was overly tremulous, if appropriately maternal. Many of her words, especially later on, were incomprehensible, which was a pity, since Maazel had enabled her movement, the fifth, ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’, to flow rather nicely. She was not much of an angel. Simon Keenlyside, on the other hand, brought an expected Lieder-singer’s attention to detail to his contributions; this may have been anticipated but was no less welcome for it. There was an occasional slight dryness to his tone, but this was only remarkable on account of the richness that characterised the rest of his part. In the third movement, there was a true sense of him narrating, with the chorus providing Bachian commentary; in the sixth, he proved ardent and eloquent. If this performance did not provide an unforgettable, implacable, Klemperer-like statement, then it boasted many excellent qualities, notably the contributions from the orchestra and from Keenlyside.