A German Requiem and two German composers sounds like your standard concert menu, but this concert was an interesting juxtaposition of two very different halves, the first filled by German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann's little-heard Ecclesiastical Action, and the second by the much-loved, much-performed German Requiem by Brahms. Truthfully, I was a little sceptical about such a modern work being partnered with such a respected warhorse of the repertory, but any doubt that the Zimmermann would not hold its own was very soon dispelled, due to both the profundity of the piece and the committed, artistic interpretation it received from all performers.
Composed in 1970 after being commissioned for the 1972 Olympic regatta in Kiel, Zimmermann's Ecclesiastical Action is a work for solo bass, two speakers and orchestra – and a partly-choreographed conductor. The work is based on the Book of Ecclesiastes – hence the title – combined with Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, and tells the story of Christ's return to earth in the 16th century, before being arrested by the Grand Inquisitor and accused of ruining humanity by rejecting the Devil's offers during his time in the wilderness. Zimmermann completed the work before committing suicide five days later – and to say the work wallows in the darkness of a clearly troubled soul would be an understatement.
The piece begins with the first speaker and bass (or in this case, baritone) proclaiming passages from Ecclesiastes, setting the scene: Omar Ebrahim portrayed the spoken-word part with a profound gravity and grandeur; Dietrich Henschel had a rich yet penetrating tone to his voice, the sung passages echoing the previous speaker forebodingly. To the surprise of the audience, trombones began to blare from all around, positioned behind and to the side of the hall, bearing down on the audience. The second speaker, Malcolm Sinclair, was direct in his tone, the grandeur of religious proclamation replaced with pointed interrogation as he read passages of Dostoevsky. The orchestra acted as an accompaniment to the story throughout, but never in a way that it was second to the speakers or singer: strokes of colour fully amalgamated the word and the scene set, harmonics screeching, the sound of an electric guitar among a concert orchestra unsettling. As the piece progressed and the action became darker, even Jurowski got involved in the action, choreographed to sit facing the audience covering his eyes. The frenzied attacks of words from the speakers were staggering, the pure yet scrambled line of the singer a beacon, the orchestra fizzing and wailing darkly in the background. Every brief spell of silence felt tangible. As the lights blacked out completely, the hall was wrought with tension and completely entranced with the atmosphere. The overwhelming tumult of applause afterwards was testament to both the greatness of this rarely performed work and the outstanding performance of the part of everyone – singers, speakers, conductors and instrumentalists alike.
The second half was completely taken up by Brahms' A German Requiem, with soloists Dietrich Henschel (not looking or sounding in the least worn out, despite a breathtaking and exhausting performance in the first half) and Miah Persson. The opening "Selig sing, die da Leid tragen" and "Denn alles Flesich es ist wie Gras" (and, in fact, the fourth movement, "Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen") were enjoyable, but the choir was a little flat in some of the quieter sections and the diction was not always entirely crisp and together, a few lagging "s" and "t" sounds smattering across the parts in places. Henschel's solos in "Herr, lehre doch mich" and "Denn wir haben keine bleibende Statt" were captivating, and the choir's performance standard lifted significantly to match his resonant and commanding tone. Persson's solo in "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit" was also sublime, although being positioned behind the orchestra made her difficult to hear at times, which was a shame given that the quality when it was clearly audible was tremendous. The final movement, "Selig sing die Toten", was far more satisfying than the previous movements without soloist, a bright and triumphant end to a concert that began in the depths of darkness.
Five days after completing his 'ecclesiastical action' And Turning Then, I Saw There Great Injustice That is Done Under the Heavens, Bernd Alois Zimmermann took his own life. His oratorio on passages from Ecclesiastes and Dostoevsky is a stark piece of performance art inextricably connected to the Fluxus school of late 1960s Germany.
It stands in utter contrast to the hopeful humanity of Brahms' German Requiem, and Brahms' glowing messages of brotherhood and consolation will feel renewed by Zimmermann's urgent challenge.
Free post-concert event on The Clore Ballroom Floor at Royal Festival Hall
Artists involved in the performance will discuss the evening's programme.
Southbank Centre: Royal Festival HallBelvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX
Vladimir Jurowski, principal conductor of LPO © Richard Cannon