National Symphony Chorus & Orchestra at National Concert Hall on 20 May 2022
On paper, tonight’s programme achieves so many things that one idea possibly got lost in the mix. This is, after all, the anniversary of the death of composer, pianist, and teacher Clara Schumann, on 20 May 1896. Given the growing (and overdue) revival of her works, and the importance of her relationship with Johannes Brahms, it seems apt to offer a memorial gesture to her by presenting her youthful Piano Concerto alongside the Brahms Requiem, a work she loved.
If this was the intention, however, the memo seems to have been lost, or else Clara’s spirit really does move in mysterious ways, as no mention of this is made either in the programme booklet or in Paul Herriott’s introduction.
Instead, the excitement tonight is about the return of former NSO Chief Conductor, Gerhard Markson, as well as being the first concert since lockdown involving the recently re-named National Symphony Chorus (formerly the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir). Whether Clara Schumann’s concerto is the main event or its quirky prelude, it is given a fluent performance here. Pianist Alexandra Dariescu brings vividness and passion to this rarely-heard work, her enthusiasm clear to see.
Amid the shimmering passagework of soloist and orchestra in the opening and closing movements, the slow Romance at the work’s heart is a special moment. Scaling back the sound completely, this intimate movement gives Dariescu the stage almost to herself, with the pianist projecting a dream-like melodic scene, soon joined by principal cellist Martin Johnson for what becomes an evocative and heartfelt duet, the two beautifully matched.
Segueing straight into the finale, the rapid-fire virtuoso style returns, the music now responsive and exploratory, to which Dariescu brings a playful and even improvisatory feel, drawing excited applause at the end.
The ‘German Requiem’ by Johannes Brahms is a very familiar work here, and tonight is in fact the third time Markson – a particular champion of Brahms’s music – has conducted the work in this hall with this orchestra and choir (previous performances were in 1997 and 2006).
There is a real sense of return and homecoming for the choir, with this their first appearance in front of an audience since the beginning of 2020. Given everything that has happened since, this work, with its powerful music, setting words of comfort for those left to mourn, is deeply felt.
Under Markson, the very colour of the orchestra seems to change with this music, producing a dark and richly textured sound. The soft choral entry in the opening movement is hushed, and the singers’ blend cohesive and secure, rising to a rich tone in the more expansive later movements.
The two soloists bring together an impressive range of styles between them. In his two movements, baritone Ben McAteer is pointedly expressive and direct, his diction clear and tender, like the Evangelist in a Bach passion. By contrast, soprano Jennifer Davis – just back from singing Wagner at London’s Royal Opera – produces a full tone that is powerful and exciting, as if casting a spell on us all.
The closing movement ends quietly, just as the work began, circling motifs making for a gentle effect, as the choir sings words of blessing, ending in silence. It is a haunting piece, and a strong sense of community comes through this music, both in its content and effect, even crossing generations. As if joining in, the audience rises to its feet, responding to the players with enthusiasm and gratitude.
Clara Schumann: Piano Concerto
Johannes Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem
Alexandra Dariescu, piano (Schumann)
Jennifer Davis, soprano; Ben McAteer, baritone (Brahms)
Gerhard Markson, conductor
National Symphony Chorus and National Symphony Orchestra
Images supplied by NSO