National Symphony Chorus & Orchestra at the National Concert Hall on May 20, 2022
On paper, tonight’s program achieves so much that an idea may have gotten lost in the mix. It is, after all, the anniversary of the death of composer, pianist and teacher Clara Schumann, May 20, 1896. Given the growing (and belated) revival of her works and the significance of her relationship with Johannes Brahms, he seems apt to offer her a commemorative gesture by presenting his Youthful Piano Concerto alongside Brahms’ Requiem, a work she loved.
If that was the intention, however, either the memo seems to have been lost, or else Clara’s mind is really moving in mysterious ways, as no mention of this is made in either the program booklet or the introduction to Paul Herriott.
Instead, the excitement tonight is about the return of former ONS bandleader, Gerhard Markson, as well as being the first gig since lockdown involving the recently renamed National Symphony Chorus (formerly the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir). Whether Clara Schumann’s concerto is the main event or its quirky prelude, it is performed here with fluidity. Pianist Alexandra Dariescu brings liveliness and passion to this rarely heard work, his enthusiasm is clearly seen.
Amid the shimmering passages of soloist and orchestra in the opening and closing movements, the slow romance at the heart of the work is a special moment. Completely reducing the sound, this intimate movement almost gives Dariescu the stage, the pianist projecting a dreamlike melodic scene, soon joined by the solo cellist Martin Johnson for what becomes an evocative and heartfelt duo, the two beautifully matched.
Moving straight into the finale, the rapid-fire virtuoso style returns, the music now responsive and exploratory, to which Dariescu brings a playful and even improvisational feel, drawing rapturous applause at the end.
Johannes Brahms’ ‘German Requiem’ is a very familiar work here, and tonight is in fact the third time that Markson – a particular champion of Brahms’ 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 coming back and going back to basics for the choir, with this first appearance before an audience since the start of 2020. Considering all that has happened since, this work, with its powerful music, poses words of comfort for those left in mourning, is deeply felt.
Under Markson, the very color of the orchestra seems to change with this music, producing a dark, richly textured sound. The soft choral entry in the opening movement is muted, and the singers’ blend cohesive and sure, rising to a rich tone in the more expansive later movements.
The two soloists bring together an impressive range of styles between them. In its two movements, the baritone Ben McAteer is ostensibly expressive and direct, his diction clear and tender, like the evangelist in a Bach Passion. On the other hand, the soprano Jennifer Davis – back after singing Wagner at the Royal Opera in London – sounds full, powerful and exciting, as if it spellbinds us all.
The closing movement ends quietly, just as the work begins, encircling motifs to soft effect, as the choir sings words of blessing, ending in silence. It’s a haunting piece, and a strong sense of community emanates from this music, both in content and effect, even across generations. As if participating, the audience rises, 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 Choir and National Symphony Orchestra
Images courtesy of NSO