To conclude his Brahms cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Andris Nelsons went one step beyond the symphonies and concertos to include Ein Deutsches Requiem. The plan had originally been to pair this with one of Brahms’s shorter choral works with orchestra, but somewhere along the line that changed.
Instead, the programme opened with the Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 60, resulting in a concert of high extremes – a rare chamber work in the chill expanse of the Royal Festival Hall, where its intimacy would inevitably feel small-scale, followed by a truly massive performance of the Deutsches Requiem.
The quartet was led by violinist Christian Tetzlaff, with Hanna Weinmeister on viola, Tanja Tetzlaff on cello, and Martin Helmchen at the piano (Christian Tetzlaff was the soloist in the Violin Concerto for this Brahms cycle and Helmchen will be back with the Philharmonia for a Beethoven concerto on Thursday.) They made a well-balanced quartet, with Helmchen careful not to dominate, as the piano easily could in such a big venue. This was no place for a faint-hearted performance and they tore into the music with high-octane fervour, while still finding time for delicacy and detail. At least from a seat near the front, this unusual programming could be counted a success.
The Requiem opened in a very different vein, grave and spacious, with cellos and basses accentuating their deep, rich sonorities. This was not to be a performance with a fresh, light step, as explored recently by conductors such as Gardiner and Herreweghe. Nelsons set speeds on the edge of ponderous, holding back for maximum weight of utterance, and the Philharmonia Orchestra sank rhythms deep into the earth like the most solid of foundations – Brahms of an acquired taste.
Appropriately, James Rutherford made a baritone soloist of Wagnerian amplitude and Sally Matthews more than a merely sweet soprano, though her vibrato was intrusive at the start. This was also a big choir performance, with the Philharmonia Chorus sounding woolly in the soft opening to “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen”, but rousing itself to a mighty spread of sound at the climaxes. It was good to hear the Royal Festival Hall organ back in action, raising the dead with the call of its own last trumpet.