Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s View of Brahms is Anything but ‘Off-the-Shelf’

GermanyGermany C.P.E. Bach and Brahms: Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (soprano), Wiebke Lehmkuhl (contralto), Markus Werba (baritone), Berlin Radio Choir (chorus master: Gijs Leenaars), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 19.10.2017. (MB)

C.P.E. Bach – Heilig, Wq 217
Brahms – Ein Deutsches Requiem, op.45

A slightly – well, perhaps more than slightly – baffling programme this. One might have presumed that the short C P E Bach cantata), Heilig, (eight minutes according to the programme, but I did not check my watch was present as a curtain-raiser for Brahms’s German Requiem. Brahms, after all, thought highly of Emanuel Bach, editing some of his music. And perhaps it would also have offered another opportunity for one of the vocal soloists. But no, the vocal types are different, so we had Wiebke Lehmkuhl sing a short solo and disappear for the rest of the evening. Perhaps even odder, the two works required different platform arrangements, so we had an interval in between them. Might it not have made more sense to have heard a selection of earlier music – Schütz, perhaps, even J S Bach or Handel? – with a more overt connection to the specific Brahms we were about to hear?

Anyway, we did not. It was a welcome opportunity to hear this 1776 cantata, for solo contralto, double chorus, and double orchestra, its text drawn from Herder, Isaiah, and the Te Deum. I cannot say that I found anything, save for its forces, especially individual in the writing: far more conventional than, say, many of C P E Bach’s orchestral or piano works. It would be difficult to begrudge it its Berlin Philharmonic premiere, though, and I have no wish to do so. Orchestra and choir (Berlin Radio Choir) alike offered a glorious sound throughout, antiphonal (Handelian) contrasts registering – although perhaps not quite so strongly as they might have done. Lehmkuhl’s performance sounded beautifully sincere, verbally and musically. It is always enjoyable to hear a little trumpet-led rejoicing too, and so we did. Yannick Nézet-Séguin ensured, greatly to his credit, that there was nothing unduly hurried to the performance, encouraging and retaining a note of necessary grandeur. It was nevertheless soon over, though, and I at least was left wondering ‘why?’

There was certainly nothing ‘off-the-shelf’ to Nézet-Séguin’s German Requiem either, conducted from memory. If I cannot say that his conception of the work was particularly close to mine, that is no reason to disqualify it; indeed, it was every reason to try to engage with it on its own terms. As sound, it was difficult to fault the performances of choir and orchestral alike, and again I have no wish to do so. What a joy – although is joy really what we should feel here? – it was, for instance, to hear those lower strings at the opening of ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen’. The blend of orchestral sound, moreover, was irreproachable, whilst offering plenty of opportunity to hear individual instruments and sections: the three harps, in particular, stood out beautifully, even celestially. And there was real warmth, even consolation, to that opening chorus, although I have heard Brahms sound darker, much darker. I was not at all sure, however, why we heard quite so robust an emphasis on ‘Freuden’; it came out of nowhere and merely sounded mannered. The great second number, ‘Denn alles Fleisch’ was a little darker, as surely it must be, but with a strange touch of ‘glamour’ to it. It was certainly worlds away from Klemperer or Furtwängler. What the performance did have, in spades, was clarity. Nézet-Séguin shaped the movement well, preparing transitions, rendering them convincing, the winding down at the close was handled especially well. What I missed, I think, was a greater sense of ‘meaning’: not just theological or even verbal.

Markus Werba proved a relatively light-toned soloist, which seemed to fit with the general approach. In ‘Herr, lehre doch mich,’ however, I could not help but think that the orchestral sound was a bit too close to Strauss; there is no single way that Brahms should sound, of course, but I am not sure, by the same token, that just anything goes either. It would be churlish, nevertheless, to deny the sonic pleasure of the build-up above the movement’s pedal-point. Following a duly lieblich ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen,’ Hanna-Elisabeth Müller got off to a shaky start in ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’. Brahms’s solo writing here is exposed, even treacherous, and so it sounded. She settled down before too long, though.

Nézet-Séguin took the opening of the following number, ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt,’ very deliberately: not just pace, but choral enunciation too. It certainly focused attention on the words, whatever else I thought of it. However, the blazing, almost ‘operatic’ approach – more Strauss again, even Wagner, than Brahms, I thought – to the Last Trump seemed somewhat out of place. A cappella writing in the final ‘Selig sind die Toten’ reminded us that the choir was in itself just as impressive as the orchestra. It flowed nicely, and sounded consoling. Concerning what, however, did we need to be consoled?

Mark Berry

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