An Unusual Pairing of Works in the Andris Nelsons Brahms Cycle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Brahms: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Hanna Weinmeister (viola) Tanja Tetzlaff (cello), Martin Helmchen (piano), Sally Matthews (soprano), James Rutherford (bass-baritone), Philharmonia Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (c0onductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 23.2.2014. (JPr)

Brahms – Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60
Ein deutsches Requiem nach Worten der heligen Schrift

 Although part of the Andris Nelsons: Brahms Cycle the first half of this concert was given over to his Quartet No. 3 in C minor, a work that does not need any conducting. This is clearly a very meditative, downbeat chamber work – apart from the dream-like ‘what might have been if’ third movement – and is thought to reflect the composer’s deep (probably) unrequited love for Clara Schumann. Indeed Roger Moseley’s informative programme note quotes the composer as ‘describing the work as “the last chapter of the man in a blue swallow-tail coat and yellow waistcoat”. As Peter H Smith points out in his book-length study of Op. 60, the sartorial description clearly alludes to Goethe’s anti-hero Werther, a young man who, after undergoing the torment of falling in love with the wife of an esteemed older friend, ultimately commits suicide.’ Brahms never attempted this himself but his music for this quartet is sufficiently tragic at the end of the final movement to suggests he ‘commits suicide’ with his music.

 The Piano Quartet in C minor is an ending in another sort of way as it is the last of the three works he composed for piano and string trio. Its gloomy dramatic rhetoric could overwhelm the score’s musical virtues and has to be kept in check, as it was here, with some taut and sensitive playing. Brahms was a consummate pianist so the piano’s involvement in this piece is demanding and Martin Helmchen impressed with the depth of his musicianship, his understated virtuosity and mastery of the composer’s chord progressions. Violinist Christian Tetzlaff, his cellist sister, Tanja, and violist, Hanna Weinmeister played beautifully, especially in that Andante third movement. Tanja Tetzlaff’s solo at the beginning of this movement was exceptionally tender and emotive and was a highlight of the whole performance: the music coming across as a wistful song.  The interplay between the musicians throughout was exceptional and everything came together in the Finale: Allegro comodo that began with a feeling of deep drama that built in yearning intensity through a superficially joyous – typically Brahmsian – chorale to move toward a subtle ending of deep resignation and a real flourish from the four fine musicians.

 Back to Moseley’s programme notes again, this time about the Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem nach Worten der heligen Schrift (A German Requiem to Words of Holy Scripture) and he mentions how ‘a letter from Brahms to his publisher … suggests that those who assumed that the work was a traditional requiem manqué were missing the point: “It can in no way whatsoever be sung in place of the requiem mass in church”. The natural home of the German Requiem was in the concert hall rather than the cathedral, for its spiritual mandate was grounded in religious culture rather than in doctrine.’

 It would need someone more spiritual that I am to debate this in greater depth but this intensely sad – but consoling – work sounded like a ‘requiem mass’ to me – even if it is never as nightmarish as Verdi’s Requiem or tenderly aspirational as Fauré’s. Brahms’s replaced the traditional Latin liturgy with biblical texts in his native German. He had been affected deeply in his twenties by the death of his mentor, Robert Schumann, who had suggested the idea of a German requiem, and then ten years later his beloved mother died. Allowing those who are left behind to overcome their grief was Brahms’s driving concern in this composition, which he finished in 1868. This is clear from the opening lines, from St. Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ At the end the chorus sings ‘for they rest from their labours; and their works follow after them’ suggesting – like Moseley believes – that ‘While Brahms could not pretend to reveal what lies beyond the grave, the fact that his “works follow after” him … continues to offer him a glimpse of immortality.’

 I was fascinated by watching Andris Nelsons’ conducting style that had been described to me as watching two snakes uncoiling and confronting each other – indeed, there is much of that but also much pointing with the index fingers of both hands as well as clawing the air with his open hands. Whatever he does, as Nelsons crouches at the podium it seems to get results. The strength of Brahms’s music comes from a perfect synthesis of orchestra, choir, baritone and soprano soloists that Nelsons strove for – and more or less achieved. Overall, he certainly seemed to bring out a great deal of warmth and humanity from the music despite its sombre subject matter. He kept a tight control of the musical arc and narrative of A German Requiem from its gentle opening – where Brahms omits the violins – through the more jubilant second movement (‘For all flesh is as grass’) that transcends its underlying funeral march; the brisk fugue at the end of the third movement (‘Lord, make me to know mind end’) that drives home the affirmation ‘The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and there shall no torment touch them’ – to the final movement’s radiant conclusion (‘Blessed are the dead’) more than seventy minutes later.

 Andris Nelsons’ A German Requiem was therefore a powerfully intense experience for someone – like me – hearing the work for the very first time. This deeply consoling performance had an immaculate flow from beginning to end, although surprising little details repeatedly forced themselves to the fore. The Philharmonia Orchestra played exceptionally well and the Philharmonia Chorus sang out with full-bodied resonance: I suspect considering their chorus master, Stefan Bevier, was born in Germany that the lack of German words – when their massed ranks were singing at full volume – was due to my proximity to the platform and the Royal Festival Hall’s acoustics for a choral work of this size.

 I always thought James Rutherford was more a bass than the baritone soloist this requiem requires – and indeed his voice sounded lighter and more lyrical than I remember hearing before but still had all the genuine darkness and weight for some demanding moments Brahms gives him. His singing throughout had great expressivity and textual clarity but maybe his rugged timbre was perhaps a little at odds with the religiosity of much of his music.

 The original soprano soloist, Annette Dasch, was ‘indisposed’. In fact, no onstage announcement was made of her replacement by Sally Matthews and although her biography was available Ms Dasch’s name was still on one of the hand-outs and I wondered how many in the audience still thought it was her singing. Ms Matthews’ purity of tone and fluid legato seemed absolutely perfect for the melancholic ‘’Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ (‘And ye now therefore have sorrow’).

 After the music ended Andris Nelsons held the audience in rapt silence for about a minute to reflect on what they heard before all concerned could get the ovation they deserved.

Jim Pritchard


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