Thursday 28 August 2008

Edinburgh International Festival: Collegium Vocale Gent/Herreweghe, 26 August 2008

Usher Hall

Stravinsky – Symphonies of wind instruments
Pousseur – Mnémosyne I
Stravinsky – Mass
Bruckner – Mass in E minor

Collegium Vocale Gent
I Solisti del Vento
Philippe Herreweghe (conductor)

This concert marked the first Edinburgh appearances of both Collegium Vocale Gent and the lesser-known but, on this evidence, very fine Belgian wind ensemble, I Solisti del Vento. Indeed, the latter performed more consistently than the former. I Solisti had the platform to themselves (plus Philippe Herreweghe) for the opening piece, Stravinsky’s Symphonies of wind instruments. It was taken at a fastish tempo, though not unduly so. The players displayed an admirably full sound, aided, it seemed, by a helpful Usher Hall acoustic. A mobile telephone’s intervention just one minute in was less helpful. This performance sounded more alert than many to the reminiscences, conscious or otherwise, of the Rite of Spring and Le rossignol, yet it never exchanged melodiousness for bite. Nor was there any contradiction between a euphonious blend and individualistic solo parts. My sole reservation concerned Herreweghe’s somewhat anti-climactic approach to the ending, although this was not nearly so much a problem as it would be later on.

There can be few more unfashionable composers today than Henri Pousseur, though once he was spoken of almost in the same breath as Stockhausen and Boulez. It was far more than a patriotic act then to perform his Mnémosyne I, composed in 1969 and dedicated to Stockhausen. (It might be a little too churlish to lament the absence of its companion piece, Mnémosyne II. Nevertheless, we should hope that some enterprising ensemble will present the opportunity to hear it before too long.) According to Paul Griffiths’s programme note, Mnémosyne I, which consist of a single unaccompanied melody, ‘may be performed by a solo singer, a unison choir, or a solo instrumentalist’. However, it was here performed by a small unison choir of six female voices, plus a solo clarinet. I am afraid that I do not know whether this practice was sanctioned by the composer; it seemed to work well enough nevertheless. Indeed, it brought the music’s inheritance from Webern all the more sharply to the fore, the clarinet and vocal combination proving reminiscent of the Austrian composer’s Dormi Jesu (Op.16 no.2). The spirit of Webern was also present, and more importantly so, in the shape of the melody, its purity, and its serenity. So, unavoidably, was the spirit of plainsong, although this was rightly not exaggerated. It was a pity that the programme did not include the text of the fragment from Hölderlin’s poem Mnemosyne, but the diction was so exemplary that anyone with basic German would have discerned the text with no difficulty. There was a real sense of something having been lost (verloren, to use an oft-repeated word from the text), yet the abiding impression nevertheless remained of beauty rather than tragic loss. Mnemosyne, the Greek personification of memory, provides consolation, amongst other things.

Stravinsky’s Mass received a good performance, although I was not without certain reservations. I liked the echoes of Œdipus Rex in the Kyrie, for which the instrumentalists must receive a great deal of credit. On the other hand, it would have benefited from a little more Stravinskian bite at times from the choir. The Gloria suffered somewhat from its two vocal soloists. The soprano’s tone was a little too white, but the real problem lay with the downright ugly tone of the contralto. Had I not seen her, I should have thought this one of those rather wild male tenorish voices sometimes associated with speculative recreations of mediæval music: a member of Marcel Pérès’s Ensemble Organum, for instance. To say that the effect jarred would be to put it far too mildly. The Credo was nicely implacable, ‘inexpressive’ in Stravinsky’s sense, which is to say nothing of the sort in reality. The a cappella ‘Amen’ made me hanker after a little vibrato, however, as I would in the solo passages of the Sanctus (especially when that contralto contributed once again). There was a good sense of motor-rhythms in the ‘Osanna’ of the Benedictus, and the wind sounded superlative on that movement’s final sustained chords. The Agnus Dei allowed Stravinsky’s harmony to tell with considerable force, but I felt that a little more warmth – this is, after all, a petition that the Lamb of God grant us peace – would not have gone amiss.

It was, however, with Bruckner’s Mass in E minor that I experienced more than just doubts. A fundamental problem lay in the size of the choir, which sometimes lacked that weight which seems so necessary to Bruckner’s conception. There were other problems, too, however, mostly related to Herreweghe’s sometimes perverse interpretive stance. The Kyrie might, at a pinch, have been termed ‘flowing’; I thought it straightforwardly rushed. It did not lack volume in the ‘Christe’, but the lack of numbers tended to be compensated for by a certain stridency. The part-writing here as elsewhere was projected with admirable clarity. Bruckner marked the brass in this movement as inessential; their interjections sounding anything but in this performance. The Gloria sounded rather as if the conductor were still in Stravinsky-mode; there was a machine-like quality quite out of place in Bruckner. The ‘Amens’ were really quite strident indeed, and too individually stressed, breaking up the greater line. Worst of all, Herreweghe brought off his musicians far too abruptly, as he would also do in subsequent movements. The Credo had a middle section that was serene, if a little on the cool side. After this, the ‘Et resurrexit...’ provided an exciting contrast but was too unyielding. Thereafter the movement staggered on with unduly sectional emphasis. This may be partly Bruckner’s fault, but he can do with a little help here. The choir beautifully captured the radiant, Palestrina-like polyphony of the Sanctus. I Solisti del Vento ably assisted the ensuing homophonic contrast, vitiated by Herreweghe’s peremptory termination of the movement. Bruckner’s harmonies sounded truly exquisite in the Benedictus, though I suspect that they would have done so all the more with larger forces. Soon, however, I wanted the music to yield more; the performance froze, to become unrelentingly metronomic, rendering the woodwind sound oddly inconsequential. When Herreweghe finally did slow down, this sounded appliqué rather than arising from the needs of the music. The Agnus Dei came across as more heartfelt, if not without a touch of shrillness at its climaxes. Sadly, this good work was undone by an almost obscenely abrupt ending. What was Herreweghe thinking of?