At last we are hearing Brahms with a difference – a Brahms neither forbidding nor predictable. Someone evidently realised that mainstream conductors and orchestras no longer had much to say in his music, that it was ripe for re-exploration. Enter the period instrument brigade. On Sunday John Eliot Gardiner inaugurated a two-year Brahms project with his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir. Next week the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment follows suit.
This is not simply an exercise in hearing familiar music on unfamiliar instruments; the aim is to retrace the music’s origins, peel off the corruptions accumulated by tradition and understand the composer in the context of his time – and ours. Such goals are worlds away from the weekly concert routine, and so are the results. A changed perspective gives the music fresh impetus, reminding us why it is still important.
Elementary? If only it were so. Then we would have no need of such inspiring events as Sunday’s concert, in which Gardiner demonstrated that Brahms’s melos grew out of a tradition extending back to Schütz and Bach. The scene was set by a collection of first-half pieces in which Brahms sat alongside his great contrapuntal predecessors. Here, in his early Begräbnisgesang (Burial Song) as much as in Schütz’s anthem Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How lovely are thy dwelling-places) and Bach’s Cantata No. 60, we could hear what Brahms learnt from the past: the consistent voicing of thematic material, in a way that communicated important feelings without being showy about it.
How far Brahms’s long choral apprenticeship influenced his mature writing will be gauged in Gardiner’s later concerts. But already, in his flexible, nuanced and disciplined reading of Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), Gardiner underlined a subtlety of feeling beneath the highly crafted surface, so that every voice – flaring brass as much as soprano and baritone solos (Katharine Fuge and Dietrich Henschel) – became the bearer of Brahms’s melodic beauty.