Variations on a Theme by Haydn (St Antony Chorale), Op.56a
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45
Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Maazel – Brahms: The Romantic (3)
Saturday, June 28, 2008 Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
To complete this three-concert “Brahms: The Romantic” series, and just a few hours after the second one, Lorin Maazel conducted an oddly balanced but well-contrasted programme that brought out the more reflective side of the composer's genius.
Variations on the St Antony Chorale (the latter not composed by Haydn) received a reading that was unerringly paced and equally well thought through as an expressive entity. Best were the slower variations – the minor-key Fourth was exquisitely poised and the lilting Seventh made the epitome of 'grazioso' – but there was no lack of purpose or energy elsewhere, while the relatively extended finale saw proceedings through to an imposing but never bombastic apotheosis in which the triangle contribution was less irritating than is usually the case. Modest in its overall dimensions though it may be, this work endured as the variation 'template' for the best part of a century, and such a lucid account as this underlined why.
Ending the present series with “Ein deutsches Requiem” (A German Requiem) made sense in several ways. Brahms surely never contemplated a choral symphony, but this setting of extracts from the Lutheran Bible has a formal rigour that is pointedly symphonic, while its overall expressive range is the widest of any of his works. Maazel (who made a notably underrated recording of it with the Philharmonia Orchestra some three decades ago) steered a secure but never uneventful course – eschewing tensile agitation and solemn contemplation, while touching on the pathos and resignation which define just what this work is about.
The opening 'Blessed are they that mourn' unfolded with an appealingly unforced eloquence, with the resonant interplay of cellos and double basses a pleasure to savour, then the sarabande-underpinning of 'For all flesh is as grass' was ominous though never dragging; Maazel bringing out the wistful charm of the interlude at 'Be patient therefore' and launching the fugal continuation of 'But the word of the Lord endureth for ever' with no change of tempo and no break in continuity beyond that engendered by the music. The intensive fugato at 'The soul of the righteous' was powerfully sustained (its pedal point absolutely in focus), then 'How lovely are thy tabernacles' became a pastorale of affecting naivety.
Heidi-Grant Murphy's limpid if slightly tremulous tone was well suited to 'And ye now therefore have sorrow', while Simon Keenlyside brought the requisite fervency to his contributions in the third and sixth movements – though in the latter, Maazel did not evince Klemperer's trick (as recorded) of proceeding from the coursing energy of 'The shall be brought to pass' (superbly incisive here) to the fugue at 'Thou art worthy, O Lord' (perhaps the work's least inspired section) without appreciable drop in intensity. The closing 'Blessed are the dead' can itself seem anti-climactic, but was finely delivered here – not least in the degree to which its many thematic allusions were resourcefully drawn into an outpouring of quiet strength and also great tenderness that proceeded to its concluding repose with a beguiling restraint. Throughout the performance, the Philharmonia Chorus and Voices sounded to be in exceptional form.
A memorable evening in which Maazel never sought to impose his magnetic personality on the music. Clearly his rekindled association with the Philharmonia Orchestra looks set to yield some excellent music-making.