Friday 11 March 2016

Slow-burn Brahms: Claire Rutter, Stephen Gadd, City of London Choir at Barbican

Johannes Brahms in 1853
Johannes Brahms in 1853
Mendelssohn, Strauss, Brahms, Claire Rutter, Stephen Gadd, City of London Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Hilary Davan Wetton; Barbican
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Mar 7 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Choral and vocal classics from well-established London choir

The City of London Choir has been going for fifty years and works with the major orchestras and big-name soloists. Their repertoire centres around the big nineteenth- and twentieth-century choral standards, and they number around 150 members – possibly younger than your average choral society, though I'm no expert. At the Barbican concert hall on 7 March 2016 they joined forces with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO), conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton in a programme of Mendelssohn, Strauss and Brahms, with soloists Claire Rutter (soprano) and Stephen Gadd (baritone).

This Barbican concert had an impressive start. The basses magically came in unaccompanied (with no clue as to where their note came from) with 'Singet de Herrn ein neues Lied' ('Sing to the Lord a new song') in Mendelssohn's setting of Psalm 98. This piece was first performed in Berlin in 1848 where Mendelssohn had been provided with a choir and small orchestra as a sweetener to encourage him to stay after the conservatoire he had been promised did not materialise. From that a cappella start the orchestra builds up, with trombones, low strings and harps, to a big celebratory finish.

Strauss expanded the orchestral song repertoire throughout his career and he set his Four Last Songs to distract himself from the war and its aftermath. First performed by Kirsten Flasgstad, these require a big orchestra and a luxury voice. Claire Rutter, often heard in bel canto and Verdi, certainly has the luxury qualities but, squished into a tiny space in the front of the platform, her voice didn't have a chance to bloom in the Barbican's tricky acoustic. There were some lovely moments: the dark violin solo in 'Beim Schlafengehen' ('While going to sleep') and of course those wonderful Strauss horns. And I'd be the first to go and hear her and the RPO in a hall that is better suited to sung text. Though we might have to wait a while for London to have a shoe-box concert hall.

When Brahms wrote Ein deutsches Requiem he was only in his forties, but traditional performance practice turned it into something muddy and stodgy, and for a long time we were used to that portrait of a bearded, tired Brahms to reinforce that. However, recent performances and recordings have lightened up the texture and speeded up the tempi, and so it was strange to hear the beginning taken at such a slow tempo as Hilary Davan Wetton set here.

The double basses, cellos and violas, followed by the harps, set a wonderful enveloping mood and when the choir came in on 'Selig sind, die da Leid tragen' ('Blessed are they that mourn') their sound was warm and full. But we soon realised we were in for a long evening. The audience applauded between every movement and this didn't help the piece to flow. The second movement, 'Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras' ('For all flesh is as grass') was thrilling, with its build-up to a huge fortissimo and sudden diminuendo. There was some well-judged word-painting, set up by the clarinets and oboes, on 'Schmerzen und Seufzen' ('pain and sighing') too. But as the tempo sagged so did the pitch of the choir; if only they had stood still, rather than swaying in time to the music, they would have been supporting their voices properly. The two soloists – baritone Stephen Gadd and soprano Claire Rutter – came on through an upstage door and sang from near the bottom of the choir risers. It meant there was more air around the voices, and clarity benefited. But both of them struggled to agree with the conductor on a tempo. Nevertheless Claire Rutter, passing her phrases between the clarinet and flute, did make her solo into something very special.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

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