Prom 37 – A German Requiem

Symphony No.40 in G minor, K550
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45

Miah Persson (soprano)
Peter Mattei (baritone)
Swedish Radio Choir
Eric Ericson Chamber Choir

Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 15 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A programme with few laughs – a tragic symphony and a requiem! Maybe not, either, the most vibrant showcase for a visiting orchestra. The Mozart was as disappointing as the Brahms was inspired.

One can only wonder at the sensibility of the person, and the ’sheep’ that followed suit, who applauded, despite Manfred Honeck’s arms being aloft, at the close of the Brahms, a truly wonderful performance, one deserving a ’minute’s silence’ or, perhaps, no applause at all. It was that absorbing. It certainly took me a couple of minutes to come round. But then, Radio 3 just the (late) night before had found the continuity guy pressing the CD button for Liszt piano pieces with absolutely no silence before or after the music. If ’3’ is now afraid of ’breathing space’, then we’re really in trouble. A worrying example of ’musical appreciation’ was set.

35 minutes for Mozart 40 advised the Proms Brochure. Rather long, unless all the repeats are taken, which proved to be Honeck’s strategy. Did the Proms Office know months in advance? Honeck opted for a rendition within ’authentic’ parameters. Speeds were swift, the symphony rendered urgent rather than tragic, and also rather glib. Honeck’s fussy concern for dynamics and phrasing drew attention rather than illuminated – rather coy and prissy, camp even! Only the rapid Minuet caught the attention; such a speed is very convincing. Otherwise, all repeats loses the symphony its concentration, the now too long ’Andante’ unbalances the proportions. The finale’s ’shock’ development is less so second time around. Yes, these things are detailed in the score … but the minimum of repeats, first movement exposition, and those in the Minuet, are sufficient and help underline the music’s terseness. Given Honeck’s ’generosity’, it’s curious that he didn’t take the Minuet sections twice again on their return – which seems to have been the (unwritten) norm back then. We was robbed!

Woodwinds and (especially) horns had been a tad fallible during the Mozart. The strings, buoyant, eager and translucent, had impressed; Honeck’s use of antiphonal violins very welcome. Such a string sound benefited the Brahms, which doesn’t need heaviness. Wind and brass settled now, these players added much that was splendid, so too the excellent timpanist, and a credible organ sound was also provided. Not sure about using two harps (Brahms scores for one), but little matter – this was a German Requiem of exceptional quality, one to match the music itself.

The combined choirs were outstanding – the unanimity of tone, enunciation, dynamics – you name it – was simply of the very highest standard. Nothing computerised though, this was heartfelt, vividly communicative singing. Honeck’s care for orchestral balance was of contrapuntal significance. The two soloists were also fine – Peter Mattei, refulgent-toned, knows how to reach an audience without preaching; Miah Persson, radiant and sensitive, was of magical distance singing from the rear of the orchestra.Balance was superb, the RAH acoustic at once ’right’ for the music, with Honeck using the space to well-timed effect. His tempos always sounded just so – not as flowing as Roger Norrington or as massive as, say, Celibidache, Giulini and Tennstedt. Sonority was deep and beautifully lit. Here was the baroque splendour of Bach and Handel classically tempered. Honeck reminded of perhaps the work’s greatest interpreter, Otto Klemperer.

At once personal and universal, of earthly contemplation and an anticipation of the beyond, this performance consoled, moved and engrossed; this was of simple faith and matters bigger than all of us.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Wednesday 20 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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