Sunday 24 August 2008

Prom 48: Gürzenich Orchestra/Stenz, 22 August 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Mahler – Symphony no.5
Stockhausen – Punkte
Schubert (orch. David Matthews) – Ständchen, D921
Schubert (orch. Manfred Trojahn) – Bei dir allein, D866/2
Schubert (orch. Colin Matthews) – Nacht und Träume, D827
Schubert (orch. Detlev Glanert) – Das Lied im Grünen, D917
Beethoven – Overture: Leonore III, Op.72b

Angelika Kirchschlager (mezzo-soprano)
Apollo Voices
Gürzenich Orchestra, Cologne
Markus Stenz (conductor)

Once again, Roger Wright has displayed great flair in terms of programming: properly understood, one of the most difficult yet rewarding aspects of concert-planning, yet all too often dismally lacking in imagination or even thought. This was a ‘re-creation’ of the 1904 first performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in Cologne, albeit with a couple of significant twists. Stockhausen’s Punkte, also premiered in Cologne, joined the programme on the composer’s eightieth birthday, and orchestrations of the four Schubert songs were commissioned. With the exception of Punkte, however, the performances did not really live up to this promise.

That of the Mahler symphony was not bad; I have heard far worse. Yet one needs rather more than that in Mahler, or ultimately in any great music. This, I think, is one of the most difficult of Mahler’s symphonies to bring off, not unlike Beethoven’s Fifth, which also this year was treated to imaginative programming and yet given an indifferent performance, considerably more so than the Mahler in fact. The opening Funeral March was taken at a swift initial tempo: more march than funereal. Unfortunately, the solo trumpet proved fallible, which seemed to induce a lack of confidence amongst the rest of the orchestra. A number of passages were not quite together and there were more slips than one can simply write off. There followed considerable flexibility and the stormy sections were taken quite fast indeed, but not too fast. There was a rather impressive sense of a nightmarish, ghostly procession of contrasts, reminding one of Mahler’s debts to Berlioz. I liked the second movement, completing the First Part of the symphony. Here there was the same quality of a nightmarish procession, with something of a ghostly puppet show too. There were some marvellously ominous passages of stillness, not least that with ’cellos and kettledrum. Leader Ursula Maria Berg proved a fine soloist. The chorale received a duly splendid statement and disintegrated in a fine, neurotic style that was too often missing from the rest of the symphony.

In the Scherzo (Part Two), the strings often lacked quite so full a tone as would have been desirable, although this may partly have been a consequence of the venue’s acoustic. More seriously, the opening section was taken not only too fast – Mahler writes nicht zu schnell (‘not too fast’) – but far too lightly. This is a scherzo, but it needs vigour; it should be kräftig (‘strong’ or ‘powerful’. If not quite Mahler as Delibes, the performance edged in that direction. The splendidly eerie woodwind provided some compensation and subsequent statements of the opening material had greater weight, profitably suggesting this movement’s transitional status. The scherzo hurtled to a thrilling and suitably ambiguous conclusion, although sadly too much damage had already been done.

The Adagietto was taken swiftly in the modern fashion, although it was in no sense unyielding. It was rather very much a love letter from Mahler to Alma, without a hint of world-weariness; death, let alone its Venetian variety, was not on the menu. The finale was attacked immediately, the ‘busy’ nature of its mock-Bachian counterpoint registering very well, even if it sometimes sounded a little too fast for its slightly pedantic quality to shine through. (It needs to have something of Die Meistersinger to it.) This counterpoint was wittily punctuated by strongly-taken brass interjections. The episodes were well characterised, although again they sometimes lacked the desirable fullness of orchestral tone. I worried when the chorale began at a strangely fast tempo, but it worked given the liveliness of the orchestral detail below. There was a sense of fun to the conclusion, but it did not sound hard won enough. As a whole, then, this reading of the symphony was pretty much all there structurally, save for the opening of the Scherzo, but it needed at least a little more horror, extremity, passion, and phantasmagoria.

Stockhausen’s Punkte received the finest performance of the evening, here in its final revision of 1993. It was visually and aurally striking to have two harps facing each other at the front of the orchestra. This and other spatial details were truly enabled to tell. One heard how the ‘points’ of the initial 1952 version became groups and even melodies. Stockhausen, Stenz, and the orchestra were ‘joining up the dots’, as it were, forming constellations from the original, pointillistic star music. There was much activity, counterbalanced by oases of sustained stillness. Some of the more ‘starry’ sounds, especially from strings and percussion, seemed to be straining towards the electronic means Stockhausen would soon adopt, although this remained very much a work for orchestra, or at least for large ensemble. The splendid brass climax for three trombones proved a far more overwhelming experience than anything in the Mahler. This was a performance of great intensity and drama, both in terms of its outbursts and the greater line. It is a pity, then, to report that much of the audience seemed rather restless. Having wildly applauded the Mahler, it once again displayed a lack of discernment.

The Schubert orchestrations, I am sad to report, proved a major disappointment, the single exception being that by Colin Matthews: Nacht und Träume. Matthews adopted a darker, more imaginative orchestral sound than his fellow composers, rather akin to Mahler or Wagner, especially Tristan: an interestingly Novalis-like take upon the night and dreams of Matthäus von Collin’s text. The important role for solo trumpet, often doubling the vocal line, was impressively sustained in a quite unsettling performance. Matthews’s brother David and Manfred Trojahn both adopted an early-ish-Romantic sounding orchestra, redolent of Mendelssohn or, at a push, Berlioz without the colour. David Matthews’s Ständchen relied a great deal – too much? – on pizzicato and woodwind. It had a more warmly Romantic postlude, with a touch of Wagner in the orchestration and harmony, although I am not sure that this attempt, as Matthews put it, ‘to move the song into a different world’, really worked. Trojahn’s orchestration lacked even this originality. Detlev Glanert’s Das Lied im Grünen was again rather conventional. It clearly aimed to impart a sense of the countryside, with woodwind solos aplenty, although some of it sounded oddly like the lighter Elgar. It was pretty enough but showed no particular insight. What we needed was a creative re-imagination along the lines of Hans Zender. Angelika Kirchshlager was an excellent soloist, her diction commendably clear and her musical line always carefully shaped. Apollo Voices worked well in their interplay with her in Ständchen. (What a pity, then, that the BBC printed the text to the wrong Ständchen in the programme: Rellstab rather than Grillparzer. Anyone can make mistakes, but someone really should have checked and picked up on this.)

Beethoven’s third Leonore overture received the weakest performance of the night. I do not think that this should be attributed principally to tiredness, although there were signs of that in a number of technical errors; Stenz’s conception that was to blame. The overture began with a distinctly ‘authenticke’ lack of vibrato in the strings and soon burst forth far too fast. Throughout, it sounded unduly sectional, with little sense of a greater symphonic whole: this for the work in which Beethoven went beyond the operatic overture to create a self-standing symphonic poem. The brass blared crudely and the trumpet solo from above was far too loud. Like the rest of the performance, it utterly lacked mystery or any sense of the metaphysical. We were subjected to a vulgar dash to the finishing line, even though we were as yet nowhere near that line. And so, there was a massive slowing before a repeated dash. Again, the audience appeared to love the performance, but I cannot for the life of me understand why. As an encore, we had a much better performance of a bleeding chunk from Parsifal’s Transformation Music. The orchestra as a whole was in superior form, and Stenz delineated the excerpt’s form – I realise that this edges towards a contradiction – with commendable clarity. Whether Wagner’s music benefits from thus being torn out of context is at best debatable, but the putative debate must surely be put behind us when, owing to the lack of bells, the arrangement began repeating earlier music over and over again, as if Wagner were a godfather of American minimalism.