Epic Concert Features Brahms’ Rinaldo and Liszt’s Faust Symphony

GermanyGermany Brahms, Liszt: Johan Botha (tenor), Herren des Sächsischen Staatsopernchores, Dresdner Philharmonie/Bertrand de Billy, (conductor), Albertinum (Lichthof), 25.5.2015. (MC)

Bertrand de Billy Photo: Marco Borggreve
Bertrand de Billy
Photo: Marco Borggreve

Brahms: Rinaldo Cantata for tenor male choir and orchestra, Op. 50
Liszt: Faust Symphony for tenor soloist, male choir and orchestra

It was good to hear a performance of the Brahms cantata Rinaldo as similar opportunities seem especially rare in the U.K. There are a handful of recordings in the catalogue but Rinaldo remains relatively unknown and mainly ignored.

Only Brahms’s Requiem beats Rinaldo for length and size of its vocal and orchestral forces. Rinaldo was originally conceived in 1863 a submission for a male choir competition by the Aachen Liedertafel but Brahms’s interest in the project waned and it was only completed in 1868. For his text Brahms looked to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe derived from the epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) by Torquato Tasso. This mystical tale describes Rinaldo, a Crusader Knight, represented here by tenor Johan Botha, who is swayed to leave siren Armida and return to battle.

This is a challenging score and Botha was in consistent form throughout with only nominal unsteadiness from which he soon recovered. Particularly notable was his singing of both the arioso ‘O lasst mich einen Augenblick noch hier’ a description of the splendour of Armida’s island and the force of nature, and the ariaStelle her der gold’nen Tage’ where he muses over his tryst with Armida. Without exception the male chorus was hard to fault and communicated the text with a striking expression. Markedly the stand-out choruses were ‘Zurück nur!’ with its martial theme conveying the valiant male fraternity after Rinaldo leaves Armida to return to his crusaders and the final chorus with full orchestra ‘Auf dem Meere’ (Schlusschor)a triumphant chorus after Rinaldo is saved from Armida sung on the return sea journey to Jerusalem. Bringing everything together with calm assurance Bertrand de Billy ensured the singular excellence of the orchestral playing and the male chorus.

Another work written to a Goethe text is Liszt’s colossal Faust Symphony lasting around seventy-five or so minutes, inspired by the tragic play Faust. The three movements are music depictions of characters from the play: Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles; all major figures in German Romantic literature. Opening the score the movement, portraying the scholar Faust whose discontentment with his existence leads him to make a pact with the Devil, contains music that moves through reflection and valour with expressive highly romantic music, sometimes uproarious, sometimes mysterious. Next Gretchen the plain, chaste maiden that develops into a tragic figure represented by primarily affectionate, pastoral music of dream-like quality. Finally Mephistopheles a satanic figure, exciting but morally corrupt represented by powerful, mainly angry music of turmoil that includes the ‘Mystical Chorus’ for a solo tenor and male chorus. For the ‘Mystical Chorus’ Botha and the organist entered from the rear of the stage adjacent to the organ whilst the members of the chorus walked slowly in single file through the side of the hall and up the stairs to take their respective positions for their relatively brief but crucial roles.

With the composed Bertrand de Billy an inspiring guide the Dresdner Philharmonie played with all the culture and high quality that I have come to expect from this excellent yet underrated orchestra. All evening I enjoyed a number of outstanding solo contributions from the principals. Steadfast, well prepared and extremely committed throughout the men of the Sächsischen Staatsopernchores deserve significant praise and chorus trainer Jörn Hinnerk Andresen was rightly called to stage to take applause.

There are much worse acoustics than the Albertinum (Lichthof), not a purpose built concert hall, but it certainly has curious sonics. With the men’s choir on the tier at the rear of the stage, in particular the high strings seemed brittle almost inaudible in the high registers. With the chorus removed from the stage the solid wall served to deflect the sound and the overall sonics seemed to improve.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous concert report held at the Albertinum, in the interval it was good to be able to walk around the Skulpturenhalle an adjacent hall that holds a collection which includes sculptures by Rodin and Henry Moore.

Michael Cookson 

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