This was the culmination of Andris Nelsons’s Brahms Cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra, centring upon the great choral work A German Requiem. Intriguingly it was paired with chamber music, which provided more of a framework for disquietude than the composure of the Requiem which followed.
For the most part a weary and apprehensive character marked this performance of the Piano Quartet. The strings’ sombre opening, built around Martin Helmchen’s stabbing octaves on the piano, recalled the mood of sublimated pain in Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor (Opus 132) and even in the hectic development it seemed that the music was struggling to throw off some inner burden. The triumph of the scherzo seemed pyrrhic, even artificial, but in contrast the Andante’s love-song was sincere. Although Tanya Tetzlaff did not linger over the aching opening melody, the duet between cello and viola in the recapitulation, joined subsequently by the violin, was more yearning. Christian Tetzlaff opened the finale tentatively, as if not wanting to dispel the Andante’s charm too abruptly. Though all four musicians rose to a clear conclusion, emotionally it was far from emphatic, upholding the defences seemingly erected by Brahms.
A German Requiem is often regarded as a work of consolation, directed towards human concerns rather than offering religious doctrine. This performance, however, evinced a notably comforting and confident approach to the music, leaving rather less room for the doubt which Brahms himself apparently felt about the claims of religion and expressed in the score, in favour of a greater Brucknerian assurance. If that was so, then Andris Nelsons’s interpretation perhaps resembled one which Sergiu Celibidache might well have taken.
Nelsons’s tempos were not as spacious as the Romanian conductor’s tended to be, but a stately traversal generally prevailed, though by no means did it drag – as indeed Celibidache’s recorded performances cannot be accused of doing. Despite the many expressive nuances masterfully elicited from the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra by Nelsons’s detailed if baton-less conducting, the grandeur and beauty of his interpretation were achieved thorough persistence and continuity rather than momentary dramatic effects. Nelsons built up climaxes seamlessly and there was an impressive unity of sound and structure sustained through the course of each movement and across the work as a whole. The fugue on “Die Gerechten Seelen” in the third movement was monumental rather than developmental, and there was a Handelian majesty to the section from “Herr, du bist würdig” in the penultimate setting, underlined by the clarity with which Nelsons brought out the strings’ counterpoint there, combining to achieve the real climax of the composition. This had an emboldening effect in the last movement, where the portentous singing of the tenors and basses in particular revealed an attitude of equanimity in the face of death.
Occasionally there seemed to be a little too much rarefied and elusive homogeneity, preventing the performance from reaching its full dramatic and emotional impact. For instance the opening of ‘Denn alles Fleisch’ could have been more sinister and threatening, whilst the chorus’s marcato
attack on its opening phrase (like the similar delivery of some other phrases) seemed oddly stilted. On the other hand, the relative swiftness of ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ made it somewhat hectic, and its tempo would have been better applied to the almost dance-like grace of ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ in place of the slightly drowsy reading that it received here. Replacing Annette Dasch, the wide vibrato of Sally Matthews’s singing in the former movement provided a reassuring message but it was not exactly the voice of maternal tenderness. James Rutherford sounded in better character, realising his solos with commanding weight, but his singing was a little dry and unmelodious.
Although Nelsons had not managed to conduct half of the Brahms Cycle through illness, having been steeped in the Brahmsian canon of Symphonies and Concertos recently it is perhaps surprising that his interpretation of the Requiem largely eschewed a sense of symphonic progress. However a long silence before applause broke out at the end bore justified testimony to the essential integrity of Nelsons’s transcendent vision of this nobly heartfelt work.