Halle Orchestra / Elder, St Paul's Cathedral, London
Monday 30 June 2008
Acoustics are fascinating. Clothe your auditorium in velvet and the sound is devoured without trace; clad it in polished wood, and it pings straight back. Fan-shaped halls dissipate sound, but the perfect acoustic form remains the humble shoebox. For mystery and suggestiveness, though, you can't beat a big church: the side-chapels give the sound back transformed, and in St Paul's, with its multiple echo-chambers, the effect can be magical.
When Brahms wrote his Four Serious Songs – the original German "Ernste" is much more pungent than the pallid English "earnest" – nothing could have been further from his mind than an orchestra in a cathedral. This was his funeral offering to Clara Schumann, the woman he had chastely adored for most of his life, and, as he put it to his publisher, these songs "aren't exactly fun, because there's nothing further to do with them, than to let them be sung by a basso with piano". Using Old Testament paragraphs dense with meaning, he created a work that needs to be followed word by word if its grim ruminations on mortality are to be properly perceived.
But Detlev Glanert's orchestral expansion, used by Mark Elder and the Hallé, expanded again in the dark cavities of St Paul's. Leading off with drums, bassoons and double-basses, and adding skittering outbursts from the violins, the accompaniment to the first song swirled and eddied around, before baritone Johan Reuter cut through with the most sweetly focused sound. In those sections where the music suddenly tore along, he and the orchestra dragged as an undifferentiated roar in their wake, but when the pace was gravely measured, the effect was magnificent. Reuter has a rare gift: he may be an opera singer, but he can also communicate spirituality, and did so here with rapt urgency.
The major part of this concert consisted of the Act I Prelude and the Good Friday Music from Parsifal, which showed that Wagner, too, could be a beneficiary of this cathedral's five-second echo. Since this music works by layering its harmonies, the result was simply a richer layering.
Soprano Orla Boylan rounded off the evening with a lovely performance of Strauss's Four Last Songs, though the rapidly shifting harmonies of this music were more than the echo-chambers could handle.
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