A Fine Programme of Brahms and Schumann from SCO and Chorus

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Schumann: Rowan Pierce (soprano), Daniela Lehner (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), SCO Chorus/Greggory Batsleer, Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Richard Egarr (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 26.10.2017. (SRT)

Brahms – Serenade No.2
Schumann – Requiem

With his strong pedigree in early music, you don’t automatically associate the name of Richard Egarr with the High German Romantic composers. He loves a rediscovery, however, and he told us at the start of the evening that nobody on stage tonight had ever taken part in a performance of Schumann’s Requiem before. Was it a UK premiere, he wondered?

If it was, then it definitely deserves a repeat performance. The Requiem dates from the desperately sad end of Schumann’s life, just before his suicide attempt and his incarceration in an asylum. Many of the works from this period are dismissed as the product of an addled mind, and the Requiem has all but sunk without a trace. True: it’s going too far to call it a masterpiece, and there are some places where either the balance is a little clumsy or the word-setting is too rushed. There is so much to enjoy, however, and the music’s atmosphere is overwhelmingly humane, its mood not dissimilar to Brahms’. The opening, for example, has the disarming simplicity of middle-period Mozart, with the textures beautifully spare and the communication winningly direct. His Te decet hymnus is much more extrovert with its trumpets and drums, reminding us that this section is, after all, an act of praise; and I loved the way the Sanctus builds to its climax rather than blazing from the outset, with tinglingly effective use of the trumpets and drums. The Benedictus quartet is hushed and prayerful, while the ending is both consolatory and translucent as it sings of God’s mercy in “quia pius es”.

You’ve got to take your hat off to the musicians (and the programmers) for granting this work the dignity of being taken seriously, and the commitment of the players and the chorus (excellent as always) gave the piece about as good a reading as anyone could. They also assembled a very strong solo quartet, with a beautifully mature soprano sound from Rowan Pierce, a strong bass underpinning from Ashley Riches, and a tenor voice of golden hue and clarion clarity from Thomas Hobbs. Mezzo Daniela Lehner had the only serious solo section (Qui Mariam absolvisti) but sadly she was the only soloist who sounded uncomfortable, projection issues compounding the fact that the line didn’t seem to fit happily within her range.

Brahms was, of course, Schumann’s great disciple, the student who outstripped his teacher, and it’s fascinating hearing what he does in his second Serenade with the tinta bequeathed by his lack of violins. He would repeat the effect elsewhere, of course, in the first movement of the German Requiem, but this is, as far as I’m aware, his only orchestral work that relegates them completely. That restricts his palette, but he does wonderful things within his self-imposed limits. In this performance it gave the music a beautifully wistful, autumnal quality for the slower first and third movements, but gave the dance movements an extra dose of heft, with extra schwung added by Egarr’s vigorous direction. It’s particularly interesting to hear a work that’s so fully led by the winds, and the role that gives to the horns, which are at the heart of the texture even more than usual, performing some lovely pairings with the cellos in places. It’s the winds that stole the limelight, however, with a beautiful singing line in the central slow movement that counts as perhaps the most lyrical thing in the whole evening.

Simon Thompson

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