MUSIC / Gloomy nights: Raymond Monelle reviews the RSNO and the SEMC

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The Independent Culture
Somebody - it may have been Mrs Browning - said that grief was passionless. This might explain the extraordinary lack of sentiment in Hindemith's Requiem, 'when lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd', which is a grim, antique piece, full of distant solemn processionals and massive, stony orchestral harmonies, without warmth or intimacy or any kind of weaker feeling.

Walt Whitman's poem, on which the piece was based, was a reaction to the death of Abraham Lincoln. Hindemith, setting these words shortly after World War II, could easily have produced something like the Britten War Requiem. But where the Englishman preaches and offers vivid portrayals of war, Lilacs, responding to the fire and blood of Wilfred Owen's anger, is an unrelenting threnody in greys and browns. There is a predominance of low and middle registers, making the orchestra - the Royal Scottish National in this Usher Hall performance - sound gloomy, opaque, and lending a husky tone to the excellent RSNO Chorus.

The composer's rejection of ordinary musical responses is quite staggering. Whitman hears a 'shy and hidden bird' singing of death; Hindemith portrays it as some horrifying black creature with a raven's croak. The text speaks of Lincoln's coffin, carried ceremoniously to burial; this becomes a ghastly death march full of the timbre of medieval music, like an early woodcut with skeletons on horseback. Again and again the poet sings of stars, weather and landscape, only to be answered with elephantine dance measures and bleak harmonies that echo the ars antiqua.

The baritone David Wilson- Johnson, dreamy and refined, seemed an odd choice for such a solemn and hieratic part, and his partner, the mezzo Ameral Gunson, though musical and firm, needed more of the noble seriousness of the old contraltos. Thus the piece did not quite convince, in spite of the brisk advocacy of the conductor, Matthias Bamert. It is one of music's strangest panoramas, utterly refusing to dishonour the dead with any self-righteous rhetoric.

Earlier in this Lenten week there was another very strange embodiment of grief. The Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka spent most of his career at the sumptuous and musically progressive court of Dresden, but failed to reach high rank in the kapelle. This is not surprising, for his setting of the Lamentations, performed by the Scottish Early Music Consort at Queen's Hall, shows him to be a learned, backward-looking musician. The middle Baroque tended to break out in a rash of chromatic lugubriousness at the merest hint of sorrow or loss; Zelenka immerses the words of the prophet Jeremiah in harmonies so extreme that the ear sometimes loses its way, partly because modern players - even when they are as good as this tiny band of strings and oboes - find it hard to place the intonation of these old works.

The three singers did more than merely master the oddities of their parts. The bass Alan Watt was sonorous and fluent in coloratura, the counter tenor Peter Nardone lively and spiritual, the tenor Christopher Hobkirk enormously persuasive in his lengthy passages of recitative. The performance was led by violinist Lucy Russell; doing without a conductor was a tour de force.