Of all the 'time arts', music is arguably best placed to convey impermanence. Frikki Walker's excellent pre-concert talk – the most philosophical I've experienced at an RSNO Friday evening concert – set this train of thought in motion.

Gerald Finley © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Gerald Finley
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Having heard Neruda Songs by Peter Lieberson (1946-2011) a few days after the composer's death, I was excited at the prospect of hearing further Lieberson settings of the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-73). Both Neruda Songs and Farewell Songs set five of Neruda's Cien Sonetos de Amor ('100 Love Sonnets'). The earlier piece had been written for his first wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died from cancer shortly after the first performance. Songs of Love and Sorrow was composed when Lieberson himself was in remission, following lengthy and gruelling treatment for lymphoma. By this time he had married Rinchen Lhamo – a former Buddhist nun. His interest in Zen was not only responsible for meeting his new love, but also for his ability to embrace the impermanence of life and the close proximity of love and loss.

Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, who premièred the work with the commissioning Boston Symphony Orchestra, had liaised with Lieberson over performance details such as the pronunciation of Chilean Spanish – which was excellent. I found Finley's account of these five songs quietly gripping. It seemed to combine those most unlikely partners, assuredness and frailty. When appropriate, he could produce a ghostly, almost bodiless head-voice. In more animated moments his tone was effortlessly strong and rich. The final bars, into which Lieberson had added the word 'adios' to the poem, were haunting. Whether through authorial prescience or audience hindsight, it was very moving. Students of composition could, I feel, learn much from Lieberson's music which, in addition to its elegant word-setting, harmony and orchestration, brims with what I can only describe as a modern melodic gift.

Prompted by his mother's death in 1865, Brahms (1833-97) was moved to rekindle an idea which had been with him since the death of his friend Robert Schumann in 1856: A German Requiem. The title simply refers to the language of the text, selected by Brahms himself from the Lutheran Bible. The overall tone of the piece could not be further from the 'Dies Irae' dread of the Latin liturgy. Comforting the bereaved, rather than terrifying them, is the intention. Scored for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra, the seven-movement work is gentle and exulting by turn.

The excellent, 152-strong RSNO chorus put in a full shift in this performance. Sharing the work in the piece's three fugues, there seemed to be barely a moment when they weren't involved. The high point, for me, was their delicate delivery of 'Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen' ('How lovely are Thy dwelling places'). The audience duly registered their appreciation of the care, preparation and musicianship of their performance and that of their director, Timothy Dean. Guiding the massive forces was conductor Lawrence Renes, whose wealth of operatic experience surely accounts for the calm way in which, in the service of the text, he balanced the many elements.

Patience is one virtue required of the two soloists, who feature in only three of the seven movements. Hitting the right mood immediately after sitting in lengthy silence is another. This was particularly true of Gerald Finley who, returning to the stage more formally dressed than before, eased into the sensibility of quiet decorum required in 'Herr, lehre doch mich' ('Lord, teach me'). This relatively short prayer seeks guidance in finding life's purpose, and voices disinterest in material concerns while acknowledging that the supplicant's 'days are as a handbreadth'.

In Kate Valentine's beautiful rendition of 'Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit' ('You now have sadness') there was absolutely no hint of the short notice suggested by the change to the programmed soloist. The text has led many to believe the protagonist to represent Brahms' late mother, offering comfort through realising that, while life is impermanent, so too is suffering: 'You now have sorrow; but I shall see you again'. This interpretation is further supported by the lines: 'I will console you, as one is consoled by his mother'. Seeming to occupy the thin end of the 'all faiths and none' wedge, could Brahms simply have been expressing consolation to the bereaved in general rather than confidence in a personal hope?

Although the performers would no doubt be delighted with the deservedly fervent audience response, I suspect that many in the hall might have preferred the ostentatiously early applauder to have acknowledged the conductor's still raised baton, allowing time to touch base after heightened emotional experience.

That niggle aside, this was a wonderful and moving performance of an ingenious piece of programming.