Review: Music to die for

London Philharmonic Orchestra Royal Albert Hall

On the eve of the most solemn day in the Christian calendar, a timely reminder of what separates us from the angels. Brahms's Schicksalslied ("Song of Destiny", after the poem by Friedrich Holderlin) shows us the hereafter and grieves for the here and now. Celestial bliss, earthly torment. Brahms, the agnostic, undergoes a temporary (or more lasting?) conversion. Though it followed some three years after Ein Deutsches Requiem, it is a fitting prelude to it. It shows us the way. Religious in the best sense. Good for the soul.

So, too, is the Requiem, of course, though its concern is very much for the living, the bereaved: "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted". At the Royal Albert Hall last Thursday, Daniele Gatti took the orchestral introduction of the former and by way of some extraordinarily pale and interesting pre-echoes from the Royal Philharmonic violins, carried the sense and sensibility, the serenity, across a disruptive and unnecessary interval, to the ascending cellos and violas and light-seeking oboe at the start of the Requiem. This is a work about human feelings, not religious ideals. Come the great double-fugue of the third movement - "But the righteous souls are in the hand of God" - the words may proclaim the Almighty, but the eternal pedal D, that so confounded its first audience, is anchored firmly in this world, not the next.

And such was the spirit of Gatti's reading. As ever, it was all in the phrasing: a natural songfulness (closer to cantilena than the German equivalent), rhythmic shape and purpose (no immoveable object, no monument, this), an operatic way with the-word-made-flesh. When the excellent baritone soloist Bo Skovhus came to reveal the moment of our deliverance, or otherwise, at "the last trump", he was very much "on stage". And what defiance Gatti elicited from the chorus in their great shouts of "O death, where is thy sting?". Indeed, this chorus - a grand confluence of the Philharmonia and London Philharmonic voices - were undoubtedly at their best flinging out the full-throated fugal exhortations. In meditative mode, sopranos and tenors in particular - exposed as they are above the musical parapet - were somewhat frayed around the edges, prone to incidents of drop-out or poorly sustained pitch.

They weren't alone. Amanda Roocroft - the voice of maternal love in that most exquisite of exchanges between soprano and chorus - was not just the wrong voice for the job, but the wrong voice below par. She sang, as ever, with commendable feeling, but the beat in the voice is now so intrusive that it's hard to distinguish exactly how close we are to the centre of any given note. Which is unsettling. In this instance, I'd say the milk of human kindness was definitely on the turn. This is the still centre of the Requiem - an oasis of calm, contemplation, consolation. The voice of Brahms's own mother is recalled. It simply won't do that it is sweet and true to his ears but not to ours.

When it came, though, the end was very lovely: blessed souls laid to rest to the strains of one last chorale wreathed in luminous Brahmsian harmonies. But we were not in mourning. That much was clear from the inspiring reach of Gatti's RPO violins. Suddenly Brahms's German Requiem was not so German, and not so much a Requiem.

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