mon 17/06/2024

Ein Deutsches Requiem, SCO, Emelyanychev, Usher Hall, Edinburgh review - immaculate, but lacking soul | reviews, news & interviews

Ein Deutsches Requiem, SCO, Emelyanychev, Usher Hall, Edinburgh review - immaculate, but lacking soul

Ein Deutsches Requiem, SCO, Emelyanychev, Usher Hall, Edinburgh review - immaculate, but lacking soul

Full-blooded Brahms from chamber forces

Maxim Emelyanychev: sure of aim in Brahms

From the outset, it was clear that this would be a performance of immaculate sonic architecture. Over a soft, deep, and breathy organ pedal the first utterings of the strings sounded tentative, almost improvised, like an artist making the first daubs on a vast empty canvas.

Likewise the chorus entry on "Selig sind", at the same time both hesitant and mysterious, yet perfectly controlled. In keeping with his reputation, there was no doubt that conductor Maxim Emelyanychev knew exactly what he wished to achieve with this performance of BrahmsA German Requiem with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

The argument for performing Brahms with chamber forces has been well-rehearsed for over a quarter of a century since the late Sir Charles Mackerras and the SCO ruffled the feathers of orthodoxy by daring to record all the symphonies with Telarc in 1997. In the intervening years the orchestra has not been shy about plundering the traditional repertoire of the large symphony orchestra – I have heard a brave assault on Maher’s Fourth Symphony (albeit with a greatly augmented “chamber” orchestra) and only this week BBC Radio 3 broadcast a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth recorded in Glasgow, a bold move facilitated by an arrangement for reduced forces by George Morton.

I had expected to see a beefed-up orchestra for the Requiem, but in the event it was more or less business as usual for the chamber orchestra -- nods in the direction of period authenticity from four natural horns, valveless trumpets, and a string sound largely lacking in vibrato. If this produced a sound that was on occasion lacking a full Brahmsian bloom, compensating reinforcements came in the form of a considerable, and very prominent role for organ. SCO German RequiemI have recently heard performances of this Requiem by amateur choirs, both with piano duet accompaniment and full orchestra without organ, and also by the SCO using a chamber “box” organ – which was so quiet as to be slightly pointless. On this occasion Emelyanychev chose to use the resident Norman and Beard civic organ in the Usher Hall, in the more than capable hands of Edinburgh organist Michael Bawtree. For all that the organ’s role is largely that of providing a lavishly upholstered backdrop, underpinned by the reassuring cushion of cavernous pedal notes, I have seldom seen an organist quite so busy pulling stops mid-phrase so as to achieve just the right nuance of volume and expression. The marriage of Edwardian grandeur and a classical orchestral texture was, I am bound to say, probably far from authentic, but immensely satisfying.

A well-balanced chorus, directed by Gregory Batsleer, made apparently light work of a score whose underlying fugues and contrapuntal complexity are belied by a mellifluous, untroubled surface. Much work had gone into clarity of diction and precision of dynamics, while still achieving the overarching sweep of consolation that Brahms was aiming for. Amid all this, there was room for a multitude of small orchestral revelations, a prominent flute part here, a sudden prominence for the contrabassoon there (hidden away beside the double basses), all of which demonstrated Emelyanychev’s almost obsessive attention to detail.

The role of the two soloists in this Requiem is quite limited, so it didn’t really matter that neither Louise Alder (replacing Sophie Bevan at short notice) or Hanno Müller-Brachmann seemed particularly comfortable in their roles, sung from a position squeezed between chorus and orchestra. Müller-Brachmann had a very clear, somewhat declamatory style that I felt might have been more at home in Bach or Handel, while Alder was more romantically operatic, but not very forceful with it.

Overall, this was still a superb performance, with evidence of much thought and rehearsal, but in the end I found it all just a degree or two short of engaging. I kept thinking of the recent amateur performance I alluded to earlier, in which the perfection of Brahms’ vision was enhanced, not diminished, by an almost unruly enthusiasm and visceral energy. The Scottish Chamber orchestra’s account was, if anything, just a shade too perfect.

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