Top Ear

Concert review: Van Zweden’s Brahms Requiem


I find it fitting to provide a brief apology about the review below:  it is of a concert on the 30th of November, 2012 (Friday), but due to a busy schedule and other circumstances this long-due article had to be published a month later.  Sincerest apologies where due.

Jeremy Lee writes

Remember the Ein Deutsches Requiem comprehensive review I did before?  Adding to that is this review of a concert of the work with the Hong Kong Philharmonic led by Jaap van Zweden, which Leonard and I went to.  But before I start I should mention a very interesting anecdote that occurred just before the concert and made us miss the first movement.

We met at around 7 o’clock, an hour before the concert, in Tseung Kwan O (if you know where that is) and took the train to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, but midway, and only on my reminder, Leonard discovered he had forgotten to bring our tickets (he had helped me buy my ticket as well), and we had to return to Leonard’s house to retrieve it.  By the time we had retrieved the tickets it was 10 minutes to the concert, and even further away from our destination.  Naturally, I was exasperated, and in the end we had to catch a taxi to save time.

When we arrived it was almost the end of the first movement (which, we reasoned, was not too large a loss), but the greatest fortune in this series of rather unfortunate events was when we learnt that we would have missed the concert entirely because van Zweden would not admit us into the hall between the later movements (in other words, the only break in the whole work was between the first two movements) had we arrived just a minute later.  We were admitted into the hall immediately after the second movement had started.  It’s just proof of the Law of Hurrying of Leonard Ip and Jeremy Lee, which essentially states that whenever the both of us are going somewhere together, no matter where we are going, how we get there or how early we start or journey, we are always in a hurry.

Well, this little incident practically ruined my original intention to be at the hall earlier to get ourselves in the solemn mood of the Brahms Requiem, but thankfully we were able to cool ourselves down quickly, and we were able to enjoy the remainder of the concert.

Van Zweden’s conception of the work was much faster than what we are used to, taking around 65 minutes to get through the work than the usual 70-80, even faster than the already pretty swift Gardiner by a trifle.  However, due possibly to either the notoriously strange sonics of the concert hall or the Hong Kong Philharmonic (or both), it sounded much less successful.  Van Zweden’s second movement was very quick, but there was none of that brooding sense of mystery at the start, nor a sense of inevitability in the crescendo that leads to the two big B flat minor climaxes.  And the climaxes, as such, were rather underwhelming, neither towering or passionate enough, and the almost characteristically weak brass of the Hong Kong Philharmonic failed to cut through the choir in the fanfare-like figures there.  I was, however, impressed by the choir, a combination of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra Chorus, which sounded fresh and warm throughout.

Stephan Genz delivered a lovely solo in the third, singing with both enthusiasm and a sense of angst.  However, the orchestra continued to sound less than impressive, and in the final fugue the choir essentially drowned out the orchestra, and the timpani ostinati were inaudible most of the time, and out-of-sync when they weren’t.  But thankfully, a soothing, flowing Wie Lieblich followed, and though the horns weren’t audible when we needed it to be, the performance of the movement as a whole was fully convincing.

Ihr habt nun traurigkeit was sung by Lyubov Petrova, and at once I didn’t appreciate her wobbly tone and rather histrionic performance that made her sound as though she was making a meal of the movement, especially when the notes climbed higher and higher.  The choir and orchestra, however, were balanced very nicely, and provided a sensitive accompaniment.

And then came the core of the work, the sixth movement.  If anything, Genz sung even better in this movement, while the opening is tense and taut throughout.  However, the C minor episodes really hung fire–they sounded rather uninvolved, and the sonority of both the orchestra and the chorus simply didn’t sound adequate.  At the climax the brass was completely inaudible (and I mean completely), robbing off any sense of visceral impact, and the organ, save for a few pedal basses, couldn’t be heard over the choir, both of which rather disappointed me.  The fugue was aptly exciting, though at the more heartfelt moments it failed to impress.  The last movement was a bit better, but certainly wasn’t magical, and the references to the first movement “Selig Sind die Toten” sounded unnecessarily rushed.

Van Zweden’s conducting throughout was precise and direct, ever eager to get things going and leaving little room for sentimentality or indulgence, but unfortunately the faster passages weren’t high in excitement–a bit like Solti without the bombast or the “wow” factor, actually.  Tempi was, as noted, similar to Gardiner’s, but what made Gardiner’s feel superior was not only because it was exciting where it should be, but also because in the more meditative moments (and there are many) Gardiner let the music brew in the air before moving on, therefore sounding relaxed and well-paced.  Van Zweden on the other hand only left us an impression of rushing through.

But we can’t just put the blame on van Zweden’s and leave it at that.  Evidently this wasn’t one of the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s better days, and as mentioned the timid, recessed brass and timpani didn’t help the performance at all.  Even the normally strong string section sound rather unfocused.  It may seem irrational to compare the Hong Kong Philharmonic to whatever other orchestras in the making of truly great Ein Deutsches Requiems–Berlin, Chicago, London, Vienna, whatever–but these orchestras (and their conductors) just show how much more there is to give, and how much van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic fall short of the mark.

In sum, this concert was underwhelming, and the audience wasn’t on their best behavior.  There wasn’t anything other than the Requiem on the program, and since it ran for only a bit more than an hour without an intermission, we thought it rather stingy (they could easily have included a serenade or an overture before the Requiem).  In fact after the concert (and after going to his Mendelssohn concert a week later) we wondered to ourselves why van Zweden would have bothered conducting the Brahms Requiem in the first place when his conducting would have suited more bombastic settings such as Verdi’s so much more.  Disappointing.

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

2 thoughts on “Concert review: Van Zweden’s Brahms Requiem

  1. I must say that I do not agree to MOST, if not all, of what you said above.
    Needless to say, you were not in the right ‘mood’ that evening.
    The performance was highly focused and the blend between chorus and orchestra superb throughout.
    It REALLY pays to be EARLY when it comes to concerts, like this one especial

    • We were late, but we did not need the whole concert to settle down. I did observe the blending of the chorus and orchestra, which was finely done, but I still believe my main comments regarding the inadequate soloists and lack of detail and prominence in the timpani and brass hold water, and those points are to my mind important factors as to why I found the performance unsatisfactory.
      Thank you anways for your comment and happy listening.
      Jeremy Lee

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