United Kingdom Brahms, Bruckner: Collegium Vocale Gent, Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, Philippe Herreweghe (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 20.8.2012 (SRT)
There was a time, not so long ago, when period performance practice was all too readily associated with austerity. Thankfully such automatic assumptions no longer hold, and that’s partly thanks to the work of orchestras like this one. The Orchestre des Champs-Elysées is one of the many musical enterprises founded by the great “period” practitioner Philippe Herreweghe, though to call him so is too limiting. This group specialises in Romantic and pre-Romantic repertoire and their great virtue is to demonstrate that playing on instruments from the time doesn’t have to bring hair-shirted dearth, but can lead to richness and revelation.
The strings play on gut instruments with little vibrato and the winds and brass are often entirely different to what you would find in a modern symphony orchestra. This lends the music a searing immediacy, but with that comes a richness and expansive quality to the sound that you seldom hear from period bands. In short, they exemplify what is, for me, the best of both styles. No-one hearing their Brahms or Bruckner could feel short-changed on the quality and depth of the sound on offer. In fact, they open up the sonorities and shine new light on much of the score; for example, the haunting piccolo and muted strings that end Brahms’ Gesang der Parzen. It’s always there, but hearing it tonight made it sounds more ghostly and more questioning than it normally is.
Collegium Vocale Gent are another group founded by Herreweghe, and the quality of their sound more than matches the orchestra’s. Decades of working with this group has allowed Herreweghe to refine their sound to perfection: they may specialise in the Baroque, but they are equally at home in core Romantic repertoire like this. Their sound is characterised by bright, pearly sopranos at the top, underpinned by basses of mahogany richness, and the result is a Rolls-Royce sound that gives the listener something to wallow in while opening up the textures of the score to forensic examination. Above all, this choir achieves sensational blend, a one-ness of sound, and the richness to this aspect of their sound work pays dividends. Some parts of Bruckner’s mighty Te Deum actually sounded compact when sung by them!
The quartet of soloists for this work was set with the choir, behind the orchestra, further improving the blend and the sense of collegiality. They were led by the sensational Maximilian Schmitt whose ripe, golden tenor so impressed me, both in Ticciati’s Don Giovanni and in last year’s opening concert. Müller’s soprano floated delicately over the top of the texture and Nazmi’s bass had sonorous depth: only Ann Hallenberg, a late stand-in for Okka von der Damerau sometimes got lost in the texture.
After such a successful first half, the evening was crowned with an extraordinary performance of Bruckner’s Ninth. Until recently “period” Bruckner would have been seen as laughable by many; that it is no longer is largely thanks to Herreweghe, whose recordings of various of the symphonies and vocal works for Harmonia Mundi have been so well received for their revelatory clarity. The big D minor climaxes of the first movement still sounded thrilling, but the texture were more open, particularly in the middle strings where I heard the biggest difference of sound, and the brass sonority at the end of the first movement was extraordinary.
An unusually precise energy drove the scherzo which here had a demonic, almost maniacal edge to it. The opening of the great Adagio was wonderfully rich but not as thick or gloopy as you’ll hear elsewhere, and the second theme had an almost floating quality to it. The dissonant climax of the finale gave way to a transcendent resolution, and the brass in the final bars were positively celestial. Herreweghe himself cut a sprightly, almost impish figure on the podium, massaging the sound to get exactly the quality he wants. What a shame, then, that for such a wonderful evening of music-making there were so many unsold seats! You don’t get to hear Bruckner like this very often and you should take any chance you get. Proms programmers, take note!
This concert was recorded and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 10 September.
The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 2nd September at a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk