United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2013 (18) – Brahms: Rachel Harnisch (soprano), Florian Boesch (baritone), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Edinburgh Festival Chorus / David Zinman (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 26.8.2013 (SRT)
Brahms: A German Requiem
After Saturday night’s only partially successful concert, the Tonhalle Zurich were on what is much more like their normal form tonight. They took the best of their Bruckner performance, namely their succinct ensemble and richness of tone, and allowed it to work a special magic on Brahms’ German Requiem. The velvety richness of the string tone, which I so praised in their Bruckner, sounded fantastic in the opening movement, the middle strings really taking flight in the absence of the violins. This showed me again how important it is for Zinman to build his sound from the bottom up with rock-solid cellos and basses underpinning some glorious work from the violas, and the same could be said of the trombones and tubas. This firm foundation meant that the upper instruments were completely free to fly when their moments came: the violin figurations at the climax of the sixth movement and the gleaming ring of the brass at the height of the second are only two examples of that special central European sound that allows the listener the luxury to wallow in it.
The singing of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus was also very good, with effectively ethereal sopranos in the outer movements and impressively neat intonation in the big fugues. Diction was impeccable too and the choir never showed signs of tiring through what can feel like a very long sing. Florian Boesch had a predominantly consolatory tone to his voice, refusing to go to histrionic extremes that some baritones indulge in, and Rachel Harnisch was a beautiful if somewhat buttoned-up presence, failing to truly take flight in Brahms’ great lyrical arcs.
David Zinman piloted the whole work mostly very impressively. I loved the care with which he graded the big crescendos in the second movement and the fugues were certainly precise. Often he lacked that extra edge of drama that lifts a performance into the realm of the very special, though. While the fugues were technically impressive he tended to rush them so that the sense of grandeur was reduced, and the sounding of the last trumpet didn’t make the hairs on your neck stand up as they really should. He came dangerously close (without quite getting there) to being indulgent in the fourth and seventh movements, with a tendency to take his time and lose his grip on the flow. Still, I got a lump in the throat at the great turning point of Aber des Herrn wort, so he must have been doing something right.
The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 1st 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