The German Requiem is an unbudgeable fixture on the Viennese musical calendar, and yet selections from Brahms’ more obscure choral output are seldom programmed, with chorus directors typically citing the unfeasible ratio of rehearsal to running time for complicated works like Nänie (which is less than 15 minutes long). Still, I was surprised to read in my programme that it has been 28 years since the Konzerthaus last programmed Nänie and an astonishing 44 years since the Gesang der Parzen, though the RSO Wien and the Wiener Singakademie certainly did their best to make up for lost time on Thursday night.
The Singakademie, which counts Brahms among their former directors, were the stars of the evening: thoroughly rehearsed by their experienced director Heinz Ferlesch, their massed sound had good fullness in the big moments and an aching tenderness in the milder sections of Nänie and the Vier Gesänge. And yet Nänie, for all its mildness, is a potent work because Brahms captures in musical form all the nuance of Schiller’s mixed view of the sublime, or as Schiller himself put it, ‘a composition of melancholy which at its utmost is manifested in a shudder, and of joyousness which can mount to rapture’. The Singakademie’s performance brought this double-edged quality to the text with a variety of vocal shadings, their refrain of ‘Auch das Schöne muß sterben!’ (‘Even beauty must perish’) acquiring greater depth of meaning with each recurrence.
The RSO Wien’s chief conductor Cornelius Meister has been in his post since 2010, and he made a notable impact on the orchestra in his first year at the helm with bold programming and playing which was in a different league compared to the RSO’s previous seasons. He hasn’t quite chalked up quite as many extraordinary performances this year and the playing in this concert was good but not that memorable, with things like phrasing in need of more detail. Meister’s own contribution was also underwhelming, forgoing the strongly interrogative approach which has led to the most intellectually scintillating performances I’ve heard from a conductor of his generation. An opportunity to reach beyond the shadow which Bach casts over the Gesang der Parzen was missed, though there was an interesting moment in the Variations on a Theme by Haydn when Brahms’ homage seemed to come by way of Weber.
The Vier Gesänge for female chorus, two horns and harp are Brahms juvenilia and it really shows, with a frankly banal musical setting of Feste’s song from Twelfth Night, ‘Come away, come away, Death’ (which uses one of Schlegel’s authoritative translations). But here the best playing of the evening was to be found, with long-spanned phrasing and sonorous tone from the RSO hornists Péter Keserü and Johannes Widihofer.
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