There was a definite buzz about London’s Southbank Centre on the evening of 16th February, for this was the night of the second concert in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s ‘The Still Point of the Turning World’ series, which began last month to huge critical acclaim (see my review). Once again, the programme consisted of a Beethoven symphony followed by a longer work of sufficient gravitas to fit the series’ title: a formula aimed at producing an immensely stimulating musical and philosophical experience for both performer and listener.

© Christoph von Dohnányi
© Christoph von Dohnányi

The formula stayed true, but unlike last month, the Beethoven symphony in question was not one of the Great Composer’s ‘smash hits’; in the words of Robert Schumann, the Fourth Symphony is a ‘slender Grecian maiden amongst Nordic giants’. She is especially slender – lithe, even – when conducted scoreless by Christoph von Dohnányi. The work’s drawn-out opening is threateningly serene, harmonically unstable yet tantalisingly simple melodically. Eventually it erupts into a joyous Allegro, full of head-nodding cadences and playful instrumental dialogues. Von Dohnányi, all eyes, arms and hips, veritably caressed the music out of his players. Bassoonist Amy Harman and clarinettist Barnaby Robson were particularly exquisite, taking, and excelling in, lead roles in all the symphony’s movements.

The ensuing Adagio is based on a beautifully lyrical melody that under anyone else’s pen might easily border on the sentimental. Beethoven prevents this potential pitfall by adding rhythmic interest to his accompaniment, echoing, for example, the clarinet melody in the violins’ off-beat note-pairs. This technique produces a sort of ‘delayed reaction’ effect that adds three-dimensionality, as well as humour, to the melody’s sublime lyricism. Indeed, this rhythmic humour, which Beethoven creates by the constant conflict of on-beat versus off-beat rhythms across different orchestral sections, was brought out wonderfully in the remaining two movements. The Minuet, a playful stomp of a movement dominated by hemiolas, twice calmed to a serene Trio and twice was crashingly reinstated with glee, before a rapid Finale played off the poised, sophisticated winds against the raucous gaggle of strings, egged on by a provocative von Dohnányi. It was schoolyard stuff: a musical game of the highest quality, in which the players – and the audience – were gripped with an infectious, childlike enjoyment.

If anyone was still feeling a little playful after the interval, the first notes of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem certainly sobered them up. The dark, sombre tones of the lower strings, and the quiet wonder of the opening choral passage (‘Blessed are they that mourn’) highlighted the intense seriousness of this Germanic masterpiece. Even Brahms’ ‘joy’ – the word at which the music transforms miraculously from the foreboding orchestration and beautifully tender choral writing of the opening section into a more assertive and open passage – remains firmly grounded, even stoical. Some intonation problems in the heights of the winds and sopranos provided the only grounds for criticism in this otherwise sublime movement.

‘For all flesh is as grass’ is an inexorable march that grows in power until it erupts into a victorious fugue as despair turns to hope. This transformation is also central to the third movement, which features the baritone soloist in antiphony with the chorus. Thomas Hampson, who was brought in last-minute to deputise for Simon Keenlyside, sang remarkably – with the perfect intensity, emotion and gravity for such a work. Again, an immense build-up of energy climaxes in a brilliant fugue over an unabating tonic pedal, which eventually grinds everything to a halt. The relentless pressure of this movement is foiled by the supreme beauty of the work’s central and most famous movement, ‘How lovely are thy tabernacles’. Soprano Susan Gritton sang the mother-like solo in ‘And ye now therefore have sorrow’; I found her voice a touch sharp-sounding (not intonationally speaking) for such a tender movement, and Hampon’s engagement in ‘For here we have no continuing city’ certainly connected with me at a higher emotional level. The almost Verdian drama of this movement climaxes in the glorious ‘Where is thy sting?’ section, which overflows into another stunning choral fugue, ending on such a high that you’d be forgiven for mistaking this for the final movement.

Brahms, however, brings us full circle, choosing to end on another exquisite ‘Blessed are they...’ movement, in which the opening choral motive is adapted to perhaps the most comforting words in all the Bible: ‘Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth... for they rest from their labours’. Angelic choral passages, mirrored by trombone chorales, translate this comfort into music, and the peace and restfulness with which the work ends – performed so sensitively by von Dohnányi and the Philharmonia – cannot but move the listener profoundly. Whether you hear it as a religious or a purely humanist work, there can be no question of this Requiem’s life-affirming capacity – as paradoxical as that might sound.