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S & H Concert Review

Schumann, Brahms Susan Gritton (soprano); Dietrich Henschel (baritone); European Voices; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Sir Simon Rattle. RFH, Monday, December 15th, 2003 (CC)


Typical of Sir Simon to give such an intelligent programme, performed with enormous enthusiasm. The juxtaposition of two Schumann works – one well-known, the other not; one orchestral, one choral – with Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem worked supremely well.

The short first half contrasted Schumann’s Genoveva Overture, Op. 85 with Nachtlied, Op. 108. Genoveva proved conclusively how the use of period forces shows Schumann’s much-maligned orchestration in a completely new light. At the very opening, for example, strings were warm of tone, yet textures were pellucid and, later, hunting horns really sounded as such. Rattle gave us a performance straight from the theatre, the ideal foil for the almost contemporary 1849 Nachtlied.

1849 was a year of fervent activity, and this work was written for a chorus Schumann had founded in Dresden. The text (by Hebbel) ennobles night and sleep. Rattle expertly brought out the hesitancy of the initial moments. The chorus (European Voices) was resplendent and beautifully balanced, while the orchestration was positively aglow. The setting itself is warmly imaginative, the scoring evoking the nocturnal subjects brilliantly (a lovely passage of pizzicato strings near the close is particularly noteworthy).

It was the Deutsches Requiem that was magnificent however. After the rather traditional, yet in its way effective, July Proms performance with the large forces we are now over-used to, Rattle, by using a smaller chorus in no less dramatic a fashion, revealed it to be if anything an even greater work.

Again, the period instruments helped – they evoked a deeply primal feel to the orchestral opening. Strings, pale and almost emaciated, prepared for the excellent choral work. European Voices was well-balanced in all areas and particular mention should go to the sopranos’ pitching in the higher regions.

Rattle underlined expressive devices to telling effect – the Affekt of the neighbour notes on ‘Tränen’ and the tenuti on ‘Weinen’ on the local level worked hand in hand with Rattle’s structural outlook. By asking for less of a blossoming than is usual on ‘kommen mit Freuden’, this seemed more a part of the ongoing argument, more naturally placed in the scene of things.

The long second movement immediately took on a monumental feel, but it was not heavy (a difficult balance to achieve) – the lightness of ‘Das Gras ist verdorret’ was inherent within it. Again, the reprise of ‘Denn alles Fleisch’ was deliberately unapocalyptic – it knew its place within the whole, as Brahms’ huge arch form began to unfold.

In a sense, this was (if this is not a contradiction) a very alive requiem – fugal writing was vigorous, never dour. Words were given full weight and diction was crystal clear, but there was more than just this: the way the chorus enjoyed the ‘Sch’ of ‘Schmerz’ told us that they were actually feeling the very sound of the word itself.

Soloists were superb. Despite the lean and gaunt Dietrich Henschel’s supreme attack and clear line (spot-on start to the notes, unwobbly follow-through; and how Rattle encouraged him to make the most of Brahms’ anguished line!), it was the remarkable Susan Gritton that shone. Interestingly, that last time I heard her, Dietrich Henschel also sang, and it was almost exactly two years ago (Gritton took the role of Sandman in Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel at the Barbican). Gritton is just as radiant now, her pure voice floating over Rattle’s web of strings (just her very first note was a trifle insecure).

This was a performance that encompassed a huge range of emotions, from rapt to, well, Brahms’ equivalent to the Storm of Verdi’s Otello (I think of the ‘O Tod, wo ist dein Stachel?’ section of the sixth movement). In Rattle’s hands, this was pure defiance in sound. If pressed to put a finger on what made this account of the Deutsches Requiem such a resounding success, it would have to be down to Rattle’s inspired marriage of structure and surface (foreground/background). But Susan Gritton’s contribution will not easily be forgotten, either.

Colin Clarke




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