Proms: Brahms, Chopin & Schubert BBCSO/ Belohlavek RAH, London / BBC 2
Monday 04 August 1997
Brahms's last choral work with orchestra is as fatalistic as its title. It sets the monologue of the Priestess in Goethe's drama Iphigenie, and Brahms was possibly responding to the tragic history of Schumann's family - two children had recently died, and a third followed his father into a mental asylum. Song of the Fates is very seldom performed, but the music has the ring of conviction, progressing from implacable severity to benign calm. The final section sets the words, "Thus sang the Fates; the outcast, the old man, listens in cavems of darkness to these songs, thinks of children and those to come, and shakes his head", and introduces orchestral sounds that seem quite new to Brahms, a piccolo briefly joining high strings, though softly, soon answered by double bassoon and tuba as the music sinks peacefully to a close. The choral writing is carved in blocks, not woven in contrapuntal lines, and sounded disciplined, if a shade subdued, in this well-prepared performance.
Chopin is hardly the most likely company for Brahms, but to hear the orchestral prelude to the F minor Concerto, so fresh and graceful, was like breaking into the open air. Not that Chopin is usually praised for his treatment of the orchestra - rather the reverse. But this, the lighter, sunnier of his two piano concertos, has some enterprising early Romantic touches in the finale, such as the violins tapping out percussive rhythms with the wood of their bows, and an atmospheric horn call that signals the final romp home.
True, an awful lot of the time, the strings are unduly acquiescent, and just play along, which made it unnecessary for Jean-Yves Thibaudet to be quite so demonstrative and forceful. In the Albert Hall, you can actually hear the piano very well, and a pianist can draw the audience in by playing quietly. Still, his playing certainly had a lot of character and brilliance, to match his usual outfit of brocade waistcoat, red socks and snazzy slippers.
Part Two marked a return to sobriety, with a very clean-cut quartet of young soloists - Rosa Mannion, Stella Doufexis, Toby Spence and Nathan Berg - joining the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra. Schubert completed his last Mass in 1822, the year of the "Unfinished" Symphony, with which it could hardly have less in common. He hoped the Mass would meet the Austrian Emperor's approval and help get him a post at court. It didn't, and perhaps the fact that he dropped the affirmation of "one holy and apostolic church" in the Creed was not in his favour. But to argue, as Paul Reid's programme note did, that this setting is "a very personal statement of faith" stretches the imagination unduly. Orchestral touches, like the alternating chimes of trombones and trumpets which quietly punctuate the Creed, and the almost Brucknerian sense of anticipation in the Sanctum as wind instruments call over softly repeated string notes - these linger in the memory. But it's a very formal, public work, whose most intense moment comes quite early on, with a massively vigorous fugue at the end of the Gloria. Belohlavek rewarded the hard-working chorus with a considerately ample pause after it.
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