The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment demonstrated its broad view of the musical territory open to period instrument ensembles with an evening of Brahms, conducted by Marin Alsop. They began with the Academic Festival Overture, Brahms’ joyful thank you for an honorary Doctorate he received from Breslau University. It is a work with more humour than is normally attributed to Brahms, a great curtain raiser, and a good contrast to the somewhat heavier works to come in tonight’s programme. Mellow natural horns, together with straightforwardly bright trumpets gave a suitably bright energy to the OAE’s playing. There was some highly characterful playing from the bassoons, but unfortunately the oboes struggled with tuning, which would become a recurring issue for them throughout the concert. Marin Alsop carried the band through the overture efficiently, although without her usual energetic stage presence.

Jamie Barton © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Jamie Barton
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, making her Proms debut, joined the orchestra and the male voices of the Choir of the Enlightenment for the Alto Rhapsody. Brahms wrote this in response to the engagement of the Schumann’s daughter, Julie, with whom Brahms had fallen in love. He described it to Clara as his “bridal song”, and she was profoundly affected by its “deep-felt grief”. Barton had an authoritative presence on stage, and drew us in with her rich low notes and touching communication of Goethe’s anguished words of despair. The strings matched this with warm tones, and the oboe somewhat made up for the earlier tuning issues with a tender solo line. When the treacly, beautifully blended male voices joined Barton for the third stanza, the balance was finely judged, with the chorus never overpowering, but adding intensity to the hymn-like close. This was a moving performance which proved to be the evening's highlight.

A Proms debut for Brahms’ rarely performed Triumphlied followed. Given its theme of celebration of German victory in the Franco-Prussian war, it understandably lapsed into relative obscurity post First World War. Yet this is an exciting choral extravaganza, with Brahms more extrovertly joyful than is evident in his other choral works. Both this and the Alto Rhapsody built on the great success of his German Requiem a few years earlier, but with its Handelian fizz, the Triumphlied inhabits a totally different soundworld. The chorus dominates its three short sections, with precious little for the solo baritone to do. Brahms sets verses from the Book of Revelation, selecting phrases clearly drawing parallels between God and the triumphant Emperor Wilhelm I, and (although not explicitly) “The Whore of Babylon” and “sinful” Paris.

The professional singers of the Choir of the Enlightenment relished the contrapuntal double choir writing, giving their entries real bite, and producing a well balanced, powerful sound in the Handelian opening movement. After a warmer, more typically Brahmsian second movement, the baritone finally gets the chance to introduce the closing movement, describing the warrior on the white horse, only to be swept aside once again by the energetic chorus in full gallop. He gets one more brief interjection before the Hallelujahs close things out. BBC New Generation Artist Benjamin Appl had a tall order to create an impact so briefly, but he managed to convey the necessary gravitas, although his higher register projected more authoritatively than his less impressive lower range. Marin Alsop kept things moving along, managing the fugal choral passages, and shaping the dynamics in the longish Hallelujahs to avoid what could otherwise become a relentless onslaught.

Marin Alsop conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Marin Alsop conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

In the first movement of the Symphony no. 1 in C minor, Alsop played to the OAE’s strengths, with an intense but not overly heavy opening. Wind tuning, particularly in the oboes, was again an issue here, however, and unfortunately this persisted throughout the symphony. This was a shame, as elsewhere there were delightful touches provided by the period instruments, such as the exchange between the natural horns and the clarinet, and the fruity rasp of the contrabassoon. Alsop gave the slow movement touching dynamic shaping, and the fragile horn and violin solo was delicately poised right to the finish of the movement. The natural horns gave an extra pastoral feel to the third movement, and Alsop took this at a relaxed tempo that matched this sound well.

Alsop took a risk with incredibly pianissimo pizzicato strings at the start of the finale, but this paid off with razor sharp ensemble from the OAE players. Once the big tune arrived, Alsop judged the arc towards the final climactic accelerando well, concluding with a majestic coda. Overall, a solid performance, but again, Alsop seemed rather more subdued than usual.

Jamie Barton emerged as the star of the evening, but the programme certainly managed to demonstrate a breadth of variety often overlooked in Brahms’ orchestral works. 

***11