Monteverdi Choir/Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique / Gardiner, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

According to Sir John Eliot Gardiner, "The idea that we can reconstruct the 'real' and 'original' Brahms is, of course, a chimera. Ultimately, our main interest is in what Brahms can sound like in our day."

It was unfortunate, therefore, that his reading of Brahms's Ein Deutsches Requiem often sounded – in the current phase of tinkering with the Royal Festival Hall acoustics – harsh and edgy to the point of discomfort. Nor did the period instruments of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique always serve to clarify Brahms's dense textures, though their thinner tonal qualities mercilessly exposed minor infelicities of intonation.

That said, this concert unfolded as part of an interesting and well-planned project: to re-examine Brahms's style in the light of the early music that he studied so assiduously. Accordingly, the Monteverdi Choir gave us a lucid account of Schütz's psalm, "Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen", and Sir John directed a lively performance of Bach's Cantata No 60 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, both of them evidently well-known to Brahms. We also heard an early Brahms rarity that very much belonged to their tradition: the "Begräbnisgesang" (Burial Song), Op 13 – a darkly impressive chorale-march for chorus and wind band that should be programmed more often.

At least these items for smaller-scale forces, placed to the fore on the RFH stage, sounded crisp and clear enough. Nor was the German Requiem without its rewards. Both soloists were impressive: Katherine Fuge floating a beautifully pure soprano line through the fifth movement, "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit", and Dietrich Henschel urgently eloquent in his two numbers.

And it was evident, from the intensity with which Sir John paced the implacable tread of the second-movement pilgrim march and whipped up the great fugal perorations, that he knows and loves his Brahms.

What somehow eluded him was the consoling flow of the Brahms style, which is, surely, what, as Sir John himself put it, "his music has to say to us now".

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