22 September 2012

Brahms in the local hall

It would (almost) have you believing in fate. Megan and I heard Brahms’ German Requiem at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw last night. We had been unable to attend Igitur nos’ performance of this work just two weeks before in Canberra (Latins sing German, CJBlog, 10 Sep 2012), but here it was being performed in one of the great concert halls of the world when we are in town. Tickets weren’t available on the Net but we were advised to try the box office, and sure enough there were a few remnant seats.

They were not the best: last row, behind and above the choir. Maybe the location gave the space its sound. We may have been in a bass trap corner. My first impression? The sound was anything but clinical. The eight double basses were deep and overwhelmingly obvious and the orchestra was not distinct. This was richly involving sound but not at all clinical or accurate, at least not where we sat. Perhaps that’s the nature of these older concert halls that predate modern acoustics. Certainly, this generous reverberation is valued by choirs. Sitting at the rear also changed the balance of voices and orchestra. The projected voices, the choir and baritone and soprano, were relatively quiet and almost lost at times. But in the quiet passages, how perfect were these voices. Such easy and accurate voicings; such clear and pure interplay of vocal parts. Some Igitur nos sopranos jokingly complained of high notes when I heard a rehearsal for this work. This choir just cut it: no strain or struggle at all. Several times a high note started a passage and every time it was just there. How good must these singers be? And the musicians were no slouches. Or maybe they were (but in the best way). I had a feeling of ease about this whole performance: no rush, no fluster, a daily outing. I don’t know how quickly this was conducted, but it always felt slow. I first noticed when the final note of a movement sat long, long, long.. What indulgence is this? It sat … and sat. Not one time but several. This is emotions wrung from the piece. It could so easily drop into immoderation, but it didn’t. It felt true although perhaps with some heart on the shoulder. But still, not tacky. I wonder if European music halls are like this. Big generalisation, I know, but these people live with it. It’s embedded in their culture. Just the feel of the Concertgebouw experience was like this, like an easy outing to the local hall. Your ticket covers free public transport for the evening. There are free coffees and wines and beers before and after the performance. The public spaces have rococo decoration and paintings and busts of famed conductors and sopranos and cellists, but the tables and chairs are from the local cafeteria. But the best: there’s a cloakroom, but also racks at the top of the stairs overflowing with rows of coats left by their owners. The standing ovation at the end includes a surge down the aisles. The bell-curved coughing between movements is the one downside I noticed of this attractive mix of expectation and easy informality. And finally, there’s an expectation at the start, with audience taking their seats and orchestra in place busily warming up. Amusingly, we entered at the front, and the choir was milling around with us at our entrance as we took our seats. I expect this is not a hall with lots of rehearsal space or backstage area. The box is what you get but the experience and the music are what matters. And this was a great experience, with a very satisfying work and wonderful performance that dripped with sentiment. Maybe it’s the work or maybe the performance, but this was not a requiem of despair. But none-the-less, I’ll treasure the memory of this night at the Concertgebouw.

The Brahms German Requiem was performed by the Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest (orchestra) and Groot Omroepkoor (choir) with Mariss Jansons (conductor), Genia Kühmeier (soprano) and Gerald Finley (bass).

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