Friday, 31 August 2007

Edinburgh Festival: Strauss, Zimmermann, Schumann, 31 August 2007

Usher Hall

Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel
Zimmermann: Photoptosis
Schumann: Symphony no.3 in E flat major, Op.97, 'Rhenish'
Strauss: Das Rosenband, Op.36 no.1
Strauss: Morgen! Op.27 no.4
Strauss: Cäcilie, Op.27 no.2

Gabriele Fontana (soprano)
Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra
Markus Stenz (conductor)

The Gürzenich orchestra has much of this music in its blood; indeed, it gave the first performance, in 1895, of Till Eulenspiegel. This performance evinced a great warmth of tone, and never fell prey to the harshness that can sometimes disfigure ostensibly distinguished accounts. Especially memorable were the violas, percussion, the solo trumpet, and those most Straussian of instruments (save for the soprano voice), the horns. Markus Stenz imparted an impressive sense of narrative and characterisation, shaping a fine example of true programme music, with no sacrifice to perception of its classical rondo form. The influence of Berlioz upon Strauss's orchestration was clearly felt, never more so than in the kettledrums of excecution, which brought to mind the 'March to the Scaffold' from the Symphonie fantastique. Till Eulenspiegel is a splendid opportunity for a fine orchestra to shine, not just technically but musically too, and in both cases this orchestra passed with flying colours.

Zimmermann's Photoptosis does much the same, albeit in a very different voice. The audience was greatly assisted in its prospects of affording a sympathetic hearing to the work by Stenz's spoken introduction. His enthusiasm was so genuine, so winning, that it must have helped win a few converts, or at least open minds, to a cause that has never really caught on, at least in this country. The ravishing beauty of the 'blue' canvas, inspired by Yves Klein's monochrome wall panels in the Musiktheater im Revier, shone brightly as we, the spectators, approached. Here was narrative of a different kind to that of Till Eulenspiegel, but narrative nevertheless. We were drawn in to the drama of a single colour, a single colour in whose variation according to perspective the whole orchestra enthusiastically participated. This was Klangfarbenmelodie, not quite of Schoenberg's variety, but Klangfarbenmelodie nevertheless. The second, collage section enabled many of the quotations to be readily discerned - Stenz was surely being unduly modest in claiming only to have perceived one of them upon his first hearing of the piece - yet never at the expense of their place within the greater whole. And the orchestral virtuosity displayed during the great crescendo of the final section made for a fine marriage between the twin earlier threads of narrative and Klangfarbenmelodie. Zimmermann could hardly have wished for better advocates than Stenz and his orchestra.

After that, the Schumann symphony was less impressive. There was a noticeable vernal freshness to the performance, but it sometimes lacked gravity. This is often the way with modern, pseudo-'authentic' Schumann performances, I know, but I did not feel that the relatively small size of the orchestra, especially with regard to the strings, provided the strongest advocacy for his still-derided - at least in some quarters - orchestration. Conductors as different as Furtwängler, Kubelik, Karajan, Sawallisch, and Kubelík managed perfectly well - indeed, much better than perfectly well - without cutting the strings, and thereby reminded us what truly Romantic music this is. The strings' articulation added to a somewhat short-breathed impression, which unhelpfully highlighted Schumann's penchant for two- and four-bar phrasing. On the other hand, this became less troublesome as time went on, Stenz appearing less hidebound by the dubious pronouncements of musical 'authenticity'. The woodwind and brass sounded resplendent throughout, although a real sense of mystery was not inappropriately reserved for the opening of the 'Cologne Cathedral' movement. The tricky gear changes of the final movement, which have tripped up some very illustrious names indeed, were surely navigated, to drive the piece to a satisfying if hardly rip-roaring conclusion.

The three Strauss songs were late, 'surprise' additions, and most welcome they were too, possessing something of a less pressurised 'encore' character. Gabriele Fontana made all of the words tell, and shaped Strauss's soaring phrases with real musicianship, although the hushed quality Morgen! demands was never quite achieved. By contrast, Torsten Janicke's violin solo was heartbreaking in its melting tone. Fontana reversed the personal pronouns in Das Rosenband. Whilst hardly a matter of fundamental importance, is this any longer necessary in an age that has known - and loved - Brigitte Fassbaender's stunning Winterreise, or which, alternatively, might even amongst the ladies of Morningside accept the possibility of love between two persons of the same sex? No matter: Cäcilie provided a resplendent conclusion. The orchestra was immediately given its head, providing a fitting contrast with the restraint of Morgen! And Fontana was well placed to ride its waves. This, undoubtedly, was the finest performance of the three songs.