Saturday, April 2, 2022

Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Guest Reviewer, David Gutman

A sombre evening offering moments of beatific consolation for a time of uncertainty and death. While the rapid local rise in COVID cases meant that several choir members were unable to attend, the evening’s principal protagonists were not affected and the audience proved no more bronchial, inattentive and chatty than usual. Might succour be available without faith? Brahms thought so.

Older readers may remember a time when the Philharmonia was London’s go-to Brahms orchestra but the London Philharmonic has occupied that slot for several decades with recorded Symphony cycles for every taste (from old-school to bright and breezy). Under Yannick Nézet-Séguin in 2009 the LPO and its Choir turned in a ‘German Requiem’ of remarkable breadth and dynamic range that some found somnambulistic though in truth Klaus Tennstedt in 1984 was comparably deliberate, only more traditional in manner and phrasing. Fresh from conducting a multifarious programme of new music that Tennstedt would never have attempted, Edward Gardner’s conception, unsurprisingly, proved lighter – and not necessarily from exposure to John Eliot Gardiner’s ‘authentic’ Bach-connected way of doing things for all that violins were seated antiphonally. At sixty-six minutes (Nézet-Séguin took ten minutes longer) the music-making felt impeccably mainstream, the danger being that efficient, judiciously sifted, carefully nuanced Brahms does not necessarily live long in the memory. Christine Karg, singing from a seat up in the choir area just below the organ was tightly focused rather than maximally angelic; Roderick Williams, his tone greying a little now, was placed on the conductor’s left. None of the switches from tenderness to monumentalism and back came unstuck. Nor was this a performance to hold the listener spellbound. Not this one anyhow. You can make your own assessment when the performance is broadcast on Marquee TV on Saturday May 7 at 7 p.m.

The concert opened with a reminder that arguably the most ‘masterly’ of all women composers was taken from us at the age of twenty-four. Psalm 129, the second of three such settings by Lili Boulanger, is also scored for chorus and orchestra. The men sing in unison, the women remaining silent until conjuring an unexpected Holstian haze to adjust the emotional trajectory of a quietly stunning seven minutes. Boulanger’s idiom is harmonically adventurous with hints of Stravinsky’s then-unwritten Symphonies of Wind Instruments and premonitions rather than echoes of Roussel (or rather his pupil Martinů), Honegger and Poulenc et al. The music certainly seemed well served even if the choral contingent might have been larger. Audience response was unfathomably tepid.

Another early work next: Messiaen’s Le Tombeau resplendissant, premiered in 1933, thereafter long-suppressed. A purely orchestral piece of mourning (whether for his mother or the passing of his own youth), it is already characteristic. With the Stravinsky of Le Sacre a presence in the mix, the first and third sections were strongly driven and rhythmically alert in the conductor’s best manner. Prominent woodwind lines, eloquently dispatched, communicated the requisite (albeit provisional) sense of calm in the second panel. Most memorable was the drenched ecstasy of the fourth, harmonics creating an airy, mystical atmosphere with violas and cellos spinning their never-ending, it-could-only-be-Messiaen unison melody.

Lili Boulanger

Psalm 129

Messiaen

Le Tombeau resplendissant

Brahms

Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45

Christiane Karg (soprano) & Roderick Williams (baritone)

London Philharmonic Choir & Rodolfus Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Edward Gardner