Brahms at St Paul’s

Variations on the St Anthony Chorale, Op.56a
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45

Janice Watson (soprano)
Alastair Miles (bass)

London Philharmonic Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kurt Masur

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 13 October, 2006
Venue: St Paul's Cathedral, London

In the solemn and spectacular setting of St Paul’s Cathedral – an awe-inspiring testament to man’s brains and hands in pre-technological times – Kurt Masur coupled secular and sacred music by Brahms to good effect.

Acoustically, St Paul’s Cathedral is not the easiest place to blend and balance timbres; the several seconds’ long reverberation is one thing, that the sound can often be muffled and indistinct is another. Add to this a tendency to only really be able to hear what is nearest; thus the first desks of the string sections were always audible; what happened to the left, right and behind was altogether less audible and clear. But, no matter, if the musicians’ minds and hearts are engaged and communicative, then wonders can still be produced, and intensified in a building such as this and when shared, as here, by several thousand people.

Kurt Masur is of course steeped in Brahms’s music and his long experience of it was notably apparent here. In the St Anthony Variations (Brahms’s designation as ‘Variations on a Theme by Haydn’ now seems disproved, the melody probably being of traditional origin), Masur adopted tempos designed to let the music breathe with the acoustic. That said, the ‘theme’ itself was sprightly, yet with no lack of ceremony; most successful, not surprisingly, were the slower Variations, which here yielded much eloquence, an affecting serenity settling upon them.

In the setting of St Paul’s, Masur’s approach to “A German Requiem” – a supreme masterpiece – was surprisingly swift: all over in 60 minutes (the average would be about 70 and 80+ is not uncommon). One might have anticipated that the acoustic would have determined the performance. It didn’t. That some entries were blurred and some ensembles little more than aural fog seemed to hardly matter as choir and orchestra gave a devoted account with the ever-watchful if quite restrained Musur – save one passage in the penultimate movement when he barked some instruction (a cautionary one, seemingly) to the choir for reasons not obviously apparent.

Masur’s lack of indulgence was refreshing; this was a Requiem (with universal significance) completely without sentiment, cobwebs blown away, but with humanity in abundance. That the march-like episodes of the second movement, described as funereal, were here quite jaunty is not to suggest anything lightweight or flippant; rather Masur was under the skin of the music’s expression, exploring contrasts within organised and evolving structures. If fortissimos were generalised – timpani a dull thud, woodwinds and brass in there somewhere – the effect was still inspirational.

The two soloists (Janice Watson replacing Melanie Diener) were placed with the choir, each taking their turns to sing from the pulpit; even from afar Watson beamed and Alastair Miles declaimed. The choir was excellent, full blooded and sensitive.

Masur’s choice of tempos led to a re-evaluation of some parts of this Requiem (its German, Lutheran Bible texts apt for the Anglican ‘arena’ of St Paul’s) – the fourth setting (“How amiable are thy tabernacles”) was here sweetly lyrical and even dance-like; and the final section (“Blessed are the dead”) flowed but with no lack of consolation, allusions to plainsong from the men’s voices taking on particular significance in this acoustic.

Indeed, this was a life-enhancing performance, one that comforted and thrilled and was very much for those living as well as remembering the departed; Brahms himself, a non-Christian, took solace from the texts, and the Requiem came to its final form through the deaths of Brahms’s close friend, Robert Schumann, and of his mother. Kurt Masur’s direct approach – directly related to Bach and Handel – was shaped without affectation and strode with purpose and optimism. Thus the hour-long length seemed just right especially so when the opening music returned at the end; this was full-circle organisation very carefully crafted.

As the audience left, St Paul’s Cathedral’s Assistant Organist thundered out the St Anthony Chorale; maybe a misjudgement … but life goes on!

  • Concert broadcast on 15 October – on BBC Radio 3 at 6.30 p.m.
  • LPO
  • Kurt Masur

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