Thursday night’s concert, from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, sought to draw similarities and accentuate differences between three pillars of German Romanticism: Wagner, Richard Strauss and Brahms. Whilst both Wagner and Brahms saw themselves as successors to Beethoven, they composed strikingly different music. Brahms displays far more reverence for the past, particularly when it comes to structural and rhythmic devices, yet as Schoenberg famously pointed out in his 1933 essay Brahms the Progressive, Brahms’ music is far from conservative.

Martyn Brabbins © Sasha Gusov
Martyn Brabbins
© Sasha Gusov

The link between Brahms and Richard Strauss was more tenuous. The concert followed a pre-concert chamber music recital which showcased sextets by both composers, however, even with an interval in between, the languid opulence of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs jarred with the rigour and intensity of Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 in C minor.

The concert opened with Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The RPO, under the baton of Martyn Brabbins gave a polished performance, but one that lacked character. Amongst the orchestral excerpts from Wagner’s operas frequently performed as concert pieces, I have always felt that this particular prelude is amongst the least involving, lacking the grandeur of the Tannhäuser Overture or the drama of Der fliegende Holländer. Perhaps even Wagner was conscious of not exhausting his audience at the beginning of an opera that is nearly five hours long. Despite this, there could have been greater attention paid to the phrasing, particularly in the strings which so often in this piece swirl in ascending turns around the stately brass melody.

Young Scottish soprano Eleanor Dennis’ account of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs suffered from a similar lack of colour. Although not conceived as a set, the four songs share the autumnal, reflective aura of Strauss’ late works. Whilst they are undoubtedly exquisitely beautiful and make artistic sense as a set, any performance should still endeavour to expose the individuality of each song. The opening of the first song Frühling lacked intent, the minor arpeggio figure in the lower strings sounded woolly and Dennis’ entry was stilted. Her voice has a strong, clear tone and will no doubt mature, but it was frequently overwhelmed by the orchestral sound, even in the quieter passages the balance was skewed. The combination of this, Strauss’ rich, smooth lines and a lack of clear diction meant the words were almost unintelligible for the majority of the performance. Dennis has been making a name for herself with performances of Handel and Mozart, perhaps tackling this repertoire now is a little premature.

The first half fell short of expectations and the prospect of a routine reading of Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 was not an enticing one. However, the RPO were an orchestra transformed in the second half. The first movement had an immediacy and vitality that was incredibly engaging. Brahms famously took over 20 years to finish this work such was the weight of expectation he felt in the shadow of Beethoven. The spectre of Beethoven can be felt at points during the piece, notably, the first movement borrows the rhythm of the famous ‘fate’ motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Brabbins accentuated this with skill, creating a sense of gnawing pressure that neatly symbolised Brahms’ own struggle with the composition. The brass playing was also exceptional, the dark, minor, fanfare-like horn call at the climactic points of the first movement was particularly effective.

The inner sections were beautifully controlled, the RPO strings produced a wonderfully warm sound in the expressive Andante sostenuto and struck the right tone in the Allegretto e grazioso, conjuring a wistful, almost pastoral air. In contrast, the finale was played with ferocity. Tempi were brisk, allowing for a sense of progression and momentum towards the jubilant coda. I had been listening to a Bernstein recording earlier in the day in which he takes the opening of the coda at furious speed, an approach I had thought unlikely I would encounter that evening, however Brabbins emulated this approach in an almost uncanny fashion. The closing minutes of this symphony were the most gripping reading I have heard in the concert hall, with Brabbins throwing in a few dynamic surprises in the closing bars.

The excitement of the Brahms managed to overshadow the routine first half, if the entire concert had been as involving it would have been a very memomorable one. 

***11