Muscular chamber orchestra delivers Brahms without the dadbod

The Swedish Chamber Orchestra offered an alternative to ‘stouter’ performances of Brahms's second symphony

The clarity of definition that Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard produced conjured up the idea of a Brahms who had been working out in gym, with all that implies

Thursday last brought the addition of a list of words to the Collins online dictionary. And that evening’s NCH concert by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra had me thinking of one of those words, dadbod, “an untoned and slightly plump male physique, esp one considered attractive”.

The connection came through the music of a composer who, as far as we know, was never a dad. He did have a major passion, which, again as far as we know, remained unrequited. But he is known to have been sexually active.

As one of his biographers, Jan Swafford, put it, "His craving for prostitutes, the only major peccadillo we know of in his adulthood, was nothing remarkable for a bachelor in his day in Germany and Austria".

The young Johannes Brahms retained his boyish looks well into his 20s, but by his 40s he was well into dadbod territory, and the best-known later photos of him show a bearded man whose physique was of the kind once known as "stout".


Performances of his orchestral music often seem attuned in their fullness, richness and roundedness to the images of the dadbod and post-dadbod Brahms. On Thursday, the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and their Danish conductor, Thomas Dausgaard, offered an alternative view that you could perhaps characterise as six-pack Brahms.

Part of the perspective was simply a matter of numbers. The Swedish Chamber Orchestra performed the second symphony with just 45 players, radically redrawing the balance between the strings – heavily reduced from the numbers of an orchestra such as the RTÉ NSO – and the wind and the brass, where the numbers remained unchanged.

But the Swedes’ music-making went well beyond anything that resulted from numbers. Dausgaard’s ideal seemed to be a style that would banish murky shadows and allow every strand in the musical texture to be carefully lit. It’s the clarity of definition he produced that conjured up the idea of a Brahms who had been working out in the gym, with all that implies in terms of sharpness of outline and minuteness of control.

To be sure, there were times when the strings simply couldn’t hold their weight against the volume of the brass. But this seemed a small price to pay for the general freshness. These issues of balance existed in the composer’s lifetime, too, when one of the most celebrated orchestras was the Meiningen Orchestra, which, like the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, played Brahms with fewer than 50 players.

The 19th-century critic Eduard Hanslick’s comments about the Meiningen Orchestra and its conductor, Hans von Bülow, still resonate: “The most admirable discipline has transformed it into an instrument upon which he plays with utter freedom and from which he produces nuances possible only with a discipline to which larger orchestras would not ordinarily submit.”

There were plenty of fresh perspectives, too, in Mozart's Piano Concerto No 26 in D, K537, where the creamy-toned and wonderfully fluid soloist was Norwegian pianist Christian Ihle Hadland. Intimacy of expression was the order of the day.

The concert opened with Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer's A Freak in Burbank, an affectionate 2007 tribute to the film director Tim Burton. The piece came across like a 21st-century successor to Dukas's Sorcerer's Apprentice, an association that seemed entirely apt.

Federico Colli’s Dublin debut

The weekend brought two other orchestral concerts that featured piano concertos. On Friday Federico Colli, winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2012, made his Dublin debut with the RTÉ NSO under Alan Buribayev in Beethoven's second concerto.

Colli is a player with a sophisticated tonal palette, and his approach to early Beethoven was crisp, clearly sculpted and always musically well-mannered. He let his hair down in a single encore, Gounod's Funeral March of a Marionette, best known in more recent times as the source of the signature tune to the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Colli's performance was in the best virtuoso tradition, tonally resourceful and wickedly witty.

Barry Douglas’s Camerata Ireland brought the third piano concerto in three days to the NCH on Sunday afternoon, with Douglas playing and directing from the keyboard in Mozart’s Concerto No 20 in D minor, K466. This is one of the composer’s darkest concerts, and Douglas delivered it with passionate urgency of an almost Beethovenian cast.

Camerata Ireland offered Beethoven’s second symphony after the interval, straight and to the point, without any of the exploratory spirit that had informed the Swedish Chamber Orchestra’s approach to Brahms. The NSO’s second half was devoted to Shostakovich’s war-time “Leningrad” symphony, which Buribayev shaped with full-on ardour and eager engagement with the music’s potential for bombast.

The spirit of the performance survived a first-movement mishap to one of the trumpeters placed on high in the choir balcony; he fainted and fell, prompting a halt to the music and a call by the conductor for a doctor. The emergency lasted an anxious few minutes before the playing was able to resume.

Happy birthday, dear Arvo

Estonia's most celebrated composer, Arvo Pärt, turned 80 in September, and Chamber Choir Ireland gave an 80th-birthday concert entirely of Pärt's music to a packed Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday evening. The choir's artistic director and conductor, Paul Hillier, has worked with Pärt, written a monograph on his music and spent part of his career at the helm of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.

Sunday's selection of music ranged from the sternly abstract Solfeggio (1963) through excerpts from the Orthodox-flavoured Kanon Pokajanen (1997) and the Louth Contemporary Music Society- commissioned The Deer's Cry (2007) to the calmer iterations of Virgencita (2012).

In these, and the evening’s other works, Hillier secured deeply resonant performances in which the singing was impressively expressive and secure. A concert by a choir at the peak of its achievement.