This was the second of two concerts which mark the beginning of a two year long Brahms project by John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. The aim of the venture, Gardiner explains in the programme, is to demonstrate the influences that shaped Brahms' style – 'of the old masters he particularly cherished (Schütz and Bach especially)' and the 'more recent heroes of his (Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann)' - and through understanding those influences achieve greater understanding of Brahms himself. For the conductor, 'his music is brimful of vigour, drama and a driving passion.' It was these qualities which were to the fore in the performance of the First Symphony which formed the second half of this concert.
The first half set out more earnestly to trace some of the influences. However, punctuated as it was by a deft address to the audience by Gardiner himself, this was an exercise that wore its evident learning lightly. It seemed to be driven by a genuine affection for the music itself rather than by high-handed academicism; throughout the players really seemed to enjoy themselves, as did their conductor. This was evident from the start with a crisp, vivid reading of the so-called Haydn Variations op.56.
The fact that Brahms mistakenly ascribed the theme to Haydn is by the by, since the spirit of the older composer's discipline and joie de vivre still inform the variations themselves. Gardiner's performance grew from a wonderfully mellow and relaxed theme through lithe and athletic renditions of the variations, the sound of the orchestra's period instruments making for airy, lucid textures. The fast variations (particularly the fifth and sixth) were fleet-footed and exhilarating.
Next came two orchestrations by Brahms of two of Schubert's most brooding and expressive songs, Gruppe aus dem Tartarus and An Schwager Kronos. These arrangements were new to me but were wonderfully vivid realisations of two Schubert piano accompaniments which have always seemed to be ripe for orchestral treatment. The men of the Monteverdi Choir sang immaculately and the details of Brahms' orchestrations – I particularly enjoyed the brass interjections at the start of the final verse of An Schwager Kronos – were brought out expertly. If anyone required additional evidence of Brahms' respect and admiration for Schubert – it was after all he who first started performing the song cycles in single concerts, with baritone Julius Stockhausen – then these arrangements offered compelling proof of his commitment to the then neglected composer.
Schubert's Gesang der Geister über den Wassern is known to be a particular favourite of Brahms, the last of several setting of same extraordinary Goethe poem which obviously fascinated Schubert. Originally scored for eight male singers, two violas, two cellos and double bass it was here given with augmented forces: the men of the choir and most of the viola, 'cello and bass sections of the orchestra. Despite the larger forces, this vivid performance maintained a sense of intimacy and the tenors were particularly fine in their rather high-lying part.
Gardiner had explained that Nathalie Stutzmann, the soloist in the Alto Rhapsody which finished the first half, was suffering from a 'stonking' cold and indeed she did look unwell and a little sheepish coming onto the stage. Her condition, however, did nothing to hide her musical intelligence and the extraordinary quality of her voice – at once rich and beguilingly pallid – and, as a real contralto, ideally suited to the haunting sound-world of this piece, an extension of that created by Schubert in the previous piece.
After this fascinating first half, we had a more conventional second half with Brahms' First Symphony. However, the performance was far from conventional. As he has so often in the past, Gardiner made us hear this work with new ears. The textures were opened up for so rather than the opacity and opulence of the standard, 'Romantic' reading which presents it as some vast monolith, we had something full of detail, grown organically out of the long musical tradition which Brahms was so well acquainted. Phrasing was elegant and classically turned; there were judiciously employed portamenti and flexibility to the tempo.
The opening movement still had gravity and drive but maintained an appealing lightness. This was carried into the Andante sostenuto, which was distinguished by some glorious wind playing; especially Michael Niesemann's playing of the several oboe solos. The wind instruments didn't blend on several occasions but that seemed exactly the point: to avoid the temptation to produce that 'Brahmsian' wall of sound and to maintain the independence of the carefully crafted lines. In the third movement, Gardiner was even freer with the tempo, suddenly speeding away in the first fast section but with his players so responsive, this came off to thrilling effect.
The finale was a joy from start to finish. Its long introduction expertly built up, the natural horns were magnificent in their big theme and the main section of the movement itself was as good a demonstration of the validity of Gardiner's approach as one could hear. It was also thrilling and immensely enjoyable, all the more so given the players' evident enjoyment. Some might argue that there wasn't the monumentality of some of the great Brahmsians of yesteryear but for me this performance shook the cobwebs off this wonderful symphony and in context the big climaxes (especially the final reprise of the chorale theme with trumpets and horns blazing magnificently) were as affecting as I've ever heard.
By Hugo Shirley