Friday 13 March 2009

Philharmonia/Salonen - Schoenberg and Zemlinsky, 12 March 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht
Zemlinsky – Lyrische Symphonie, op.18

Solveig Kringelborn (soprano)
Juha Uusitalo (bass-baritone)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

London buses spring to mind – an unusual reaction, I suspect, to so Viennese a programme: Schoenberg and Zemlinsky. But whilst Verklärte Nacht seems ubiquitous in terms of recordings, it had been a while since I have heard it in concert, or at least it had been until Tuesday’s Britten Sinfonia lunchtime concert. That, however, presented the original sextet version, whereas here we heard the second of Schoenberg’s orchestral versions, from 1943. I have always ultimately preferred the Brahmsian sound of the original, but there is certainly compensation in the sheer luxury of the sound from a full orchestral string section – such as Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic, still to my mind the greatest orchestral recording, or, in a performance I heard a few years ago, the Vienna Philharmonic under Boulez. I have less frequently been convinced by the chamber orchestra approach: neither one thing nor the other, although I should make an exception for Heinz Holliger’s wonderful recording with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, which manages to combine many of the best aspects of both. This, anyway, is a preamble to saying that Esa-Pekka Salonen wisely opted for a full complement of Philharmonia strings.

Did this choice pay off? On the whole, yes. I have little to quibble about in terms of the orchestral performance. These are not, of course, the strings of Vienna. Nevertheless, any hint of thinness was but fleeting; indeed, there was often a truly Brahmsian richness, not least in the tremolo passages from double basses and ’cellos. On occasion one even heard a sweetness suggestive of the ‘City of Dreams’, which gives its name to this concert series. There were more than a few hints of Mahlerian neuroticism, for instance in the increased intensity of vibrato upon certain notes. The solo work of leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay was as aristocratic as we have come to expect but no less noteworthy for that.

What reservations I had, and I should not wish to exaggerate them, relate to Salonen’s interpretation rather than the Philharmonia’s execution. The work was played very much as an orchestral piece, which is fair enough, and sounded very much conducted, which of course it was. I liked very much the Nordic cool imparted to the opening bars but the race was a little frantic towards the hothouse and I am not sure that the latter should really have been our destination. We are concerned, after all, with a moonlit forest, both literally and symbolically. Sometimes, the reading sounded a little too consciously moulded; art is often better employed to conceal art. The often extreme shifts of tempo worked better on some occasions than others, though it is only fair to note the considerable excitement of the faster, almost operatic passages. Where I felt short-changed was in the relative lack of transfiguration. The final section lacked that sense of elevation, programmatic and tonal, which the finest performances will variously impart. Salonen’s superlative Gurrelieder was always going to be a hard act to follow.

Nevertheless, the conductor managed to do just this in Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony. This work, I think, is close to a masterpiece; there is true greatness to be heard here – and heard it was. Schoenberg, no less, opined in 1949: ‘I always firmly believed that he was a great composer and I still believe this. It is possible that his time will come sooner than we think.’ Salonen could well be the man to make sceptics reconsider, for there could be no doubt from this performance that, unlike the increasingly bizarre claims heard from a vocal gang of Korngold devotees, Schoenberg’s words are worth considering, even if ultimately they might transpire to be a little generous. The Royal Opera would certainly be better off considering a Zemlinsky sequel to Die tote Stadt rather than reviving the ludicrous Das Wunder der Heliane, a work heard in all its dubious glory a little over a year ago from the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski. Where Korngold, even at his best, conjures up effect, Zemlinsky clearly means what he says in the Lyric Symphony.

From the fatalistic opening, with its crucial motif intoned by three trumpets and three trombones, underpinned by crashing rolls on the kettledrum, to the very end, the commitment and accomplishment of Salonen and the Philharmonia could not be faulted. The orchestra in this work is, after all, a truly Wagnerian Greek Chorus. Febrile strings imparted menace to the introduction but could just as easily be transformed into purveyors of a late-Romantic outpouring of love. Solo passages, from wherever they came in the orchestra, were uniformly excellent. Paul Edmund-Davies’s flute arabesques, which accompanied the textual evocation of his instrument – ‘O fernstes End, o ungestümtes Rufen deiner Flöte!’ – would have taken the listener anywhere this Pied Piper might have led him. In the second movement, Visontay’s opening violin solo was just as it should be: skittish and sweet. A little later, we heard the girl’s chain crushed under the wheels of the Prince’s chariot: a vivid piece of tone-painting from the lower strings. The thrilling vocal and orchestral climax that followed not only impressed in itself but also led us with flawless symphonic ease into the third song. Motivic development was always surely attended to, here and elsewhere. Elspeth Dutch’s horn solo in ‘Du bist die Abendwolke’ was truly melting, whilst in the following, fourth movement, Visontay and David Cohen presented an almost Bergian duet, which warned us all too clearly of the perils and indeed madness of Romantic love. The nauseating orchestral fantasy that followed was Klimt-like in its colours, celesta (Shelagh Sutherland) and harp (Hugh Webb) especially worthy of mention. This was, of course, a wicked, pleasurable nausea, and all the more discomfiting for that. Salonen captured masterfully the furious scherzo-like onslaught of the fifth movement, its outburst of violence over in a flash, before Mahlerian violas and two trombones offered illusory consolation in the introduction to the sixth. The sense here of still desolation was eerily captured by the ever-present pedal on the double-basses, played here to ominous perfection, granting an apt sense of claustrophobia to this horrifying movement. And when the orchestra was once again truly given its head in the postlude to the final movement, it sounded unambiguously magnificent, as if this were a work that featured as a staple of its repertory.

This is, of course, a lyric symphony, so what of the voices? Juha Uusitalo took a while to settle, his intonation somewhat wavering in the first movement. However, by the time of the third, in which he reappears – soloists sing in alternate movements, never together – his voice sounded cleaner and winningly ‘honest’, the latter quality intriguingly suggestive of Wagner’s Fasolt. Uusitalo’s diction was perfect throughout; if his German were slightly accented, as often seems to be the case from even the most celebrated of low Finnish voices, one could nevertheless hear every word without the slightest strain. I was also impressed by the Lieder-singer’s attention he devoted to words and their meaning. Intonation was not always spot on in the final movement but nor was it unduly troubling. Solveig Kringelborn was rapt in her lyricism, equally attentive to the dictates of musical line and verbal meaning. It is more difficult, of course, for a soprano to render every word audible, but she did not fare badly on that score. There was again a welcome sense of the Lieder-singer to her reading. Indeed, so involved was she with the text that she could not resist a little operatic throwing of her ruby chain as the Prince passed by her door. Conscious or no, it was a special moment. And this was a special performance.