On Armistice Day, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Marin Alsop offered us Brahms’ German Requiem, a work whose power lies in its exhortation to mourn and to learn and live with the loss that is part of behind human. First, though, was Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, scored for two string ensembles and a quartet of soloists.

Marin Alsop © Adriane White
Marin Alsop
© Adriane White

OAE leader Maggie Faultless addressed the audience before they began, making clear the research and meticulousness that goes into OAE’s performances, as well as providing some striking historical and musical context, explaining the contemporaneous experimentation in string technique that shaped their approach to the piece. The great Fritz Kreisler was amongst the soloists who performed in the première of the work, and the artful portamento and considered, expressive use of vibrato in the OAE’s performance was testament to this. Stylistically it was deft and gestural without rotting the teeth. 

There were some intonation wobbles from time to time, but what stood out above all was a keen sense of the textural and sonic complexities of this work. It also featured translucency and moments of sudden, expressive lucidity that spoke to the influence of Ravel, with whom Vaughan Williams had studied in Paris just two years prior to the first performance. 

In the OAE’s hands this music sounded less like the shimmering soundtrack to some misty Merrie England and more a set of daring, quivering experiments in orchestral density and diaphanousness, glowing and liquified in equal part. Orchestra II was positioned to the rear of stage right, and produced when the other parts fell away, an otherworldly organ-like sonority, suspended in the middle distance (one recalls that Vaughan Williams had edited The English Hymnal recently.) Alsop’s skilled blending of the different ensembles attested to a perceptive ear for the antiphonal complexities of the work, and made for a totally unique concert experience, almost impossible to replicate in recordings.

Brahms’ German Requiem offered something much earthier, its beauty rough-hewn and its hopefulness hard-won. The OAE and Alsop were particularly adept in drawing out the darker orchestration of the work, with its glorious middle-register and calculated inner parts, balancing richness with definition, sometimes stentorian Lutheranism and elsewhere northern-European melancholy, especially in a first movement eschewing violins. The dark-hued woodwinds of the OAE glowed darkly in this respect, with especially primordial loam in the rich contrabassoon part of “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras”: All flesh is grass, Peter says, but it is Brahms who reminds us that it is into the soil that we’re all headed. 

Alsop was keen to underline Brahms’ humanism, and the situation of his Requiem in this world rather than the one beyond (Brahms’ text does not once mention Christ, or the day of judgement, or the salvation to come.) This Requiem is about those left behind and the tireless work of mourning being human entails, living on despite loss. This was an embattled performance, with its lyrical emotional victories hard-won, particularly in the great fugues of the third and six movements, with vigorous strings quashing any thoughts of any cool, academic detachment in Brahms’ counterpoint. Alsop’s approach gave us Beethoven’s humanism, with hints of his Christ on the Mount of Olives or Ninth Symphony, resilient and earthbound, striving for unity and joy. 

The Choir of the Age of Enlightenment were the stars that evening, just the right size – ten to a part or thereabouts – to give us volume and weight without losing definition of attack or clarity of diction: a requiem that still on the human scale. They were source of anything truly angelic to be found in this score, with a glowing, perfectly blended sound in “Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt” and a radiant power in the final movement’s “Selig sind die Toten”. This isn’t a piece that demands real fire and fury, more moments of monumental defiance, such as the enormous climax of movement six, “Der Tod its verschlungen in den Sieg”, which the chorus arrived at with passionate intensity and vivd animation of the text.  

Last-minute baritone replacement Samuel Hasselhorn didn’t quite feel at ease in what was clearly a performance that had clearly been diligently rehearsed, and some more colours in a what was still a trouble-free performance would have been welcome at times. He clearly hit his stride with the great declamatory solos of movement six, with a powerful and steadfast sound in the upper register. Soprano Elizabeth Watts’ solo in movement five was a real highlight: warm yet precise, with delicately floating top notes and a softness and roundness in her tone where needed. Her tenderness was a respite from the defiance and dynamism of Alsop’s driven performance. 

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