Another day, another Requiem, but what a contrast between the two. Last Sunday Teodor Currentzis brought Verdi’s mighty Mass for the dead to the Aix Easter Festival and ignited a musical firework display; last night, on the Wednesday before Easter, a conductor of the old school took to the same platform and did things traditionally as the Sinfonieorchester Basel and MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig performed Brahms’s non-liturgical counterpart.

Marek Janowski conducts Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem
© Caroline Doutre

Everything about the two experiences was different. Marek Janowski is one of the least flamboyant conductors on the circuit, Currentzis probably the most. Janowski’s forces for Ein Deutsches Requiem were smartly turned out in traditional concert wear; the concert began and ended with dignity; even the strings were divided in standard fashion with the cello section placed opposite the first violins – the first of this year’s four opening concerts where that’s happened. And whereas Sunday’s male soloists had outshone the soprano and mezzo, with Janowski it was the opposite. Munich-born soprano Christina Landshamer projected a bright, sympathetic tone in “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” while it was the bass whose timbre failed to please.

One should perhaps go easy on Wilhelm Schwinghammer since he was a late replacement (albeit unannounced, as has been the case more than once at this year’s Aix Easter Festival) for the advertised Detlef Roth; but when your programme note declares you to be “one of the best baritones of the young generation” you need at least to be pretty good. Well, maybe he is. Maybe this was an off night. But Schwinghammer seemed uncomfortable from the start as he skidded, nose deep in copy, into the opening bars of “Herr, lehre doch mich” and kept up the heavy weather thereafter. The sound was ungrateful, his high notes were fragile, and of Brahmsian beauty there was little trace. In “Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt” he even ran out of puff during one sustained passage.

Christina Landshamer, Marek Janowski and the Sinfonieorchester Basel
© Caroline Doutre

This was all the more unfortunate given that Janowski’s reading of the Requiem was so cohesive and considered. I’d have guessed his Wagnerian credentials even if I hadn’t known them, so sustained and expansive was his direction. The Sinfonieorchester Basel played wonderfully for him, and his integration of the 60-strong chorus into the orchestral texture was a noteworthy achievement. (The MDR Rundfunkchor has a first-rate alto section, incidentally.) In the opening movement, “Selig sind”, singers and players melded into a single entity with neither solo instruments nor voices in any way spotlit. Janowski even contrived to attenuate the stark timpani flourishes in “Denn alles Fleisch” so that they sat snugly within the overall sound. The conductor’s intelligent and moving interpretation of Brahms’ long, protean second movement was the highlight of an account in which his concept rang consistently true and the musicians did him proud. A flawed performance, then, but one steeped in the music’s idiom.

Mark's travel to Aix was funded by the Festival de Pâques