Thursday 30 July 2009

Prom 19: Hallé/Elder - Berlioz and Mendelssohn, 30 July 2009

Royal Albert Hall

Berlioz – Overture: Benvenuto Cellini
Berlioz – La mort de Cléopâtre
Mendelssohn, Symphony no.2 in B-flat major, op.52, ‘Lobegesang’

Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano)
Sally Matthews (soprano)
Sarah Castle (mezzo-soprano)
Steve Davislim (tenor)

Hallé Choir (chorus master: James Burton)
Hallé Youth Choir (chorus master: Gregory Batsleer)
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)

I entertained high hopes for this concert. Sadly, many, though by no means all, remained unfulfilled. Londoners are spoilt when it comes to Berlioz, but it would be a pity if the presence of Sir Colin Davis scared off all challengers. It does not seem to do so, which is all well and good, but Sir Mark Elder’s account of the overture to Benvenuto Cellini disappointed. Opening rhythms were sharply defined but the music was simply too hard-driven, a problem exacerbated by a lack of orchestral balance, the brass often drowning out or at least unduly subduing the strings. Then came a very slow section, the contrast being overdone, to put it mildly. Berlioz is fully able to withstand – indeed, it might well be argued that he invites – a less Classical approach than that of Davis, but the stop-start, sectional nature of at least the first half of this performance dragged him down to the level of the Italian repertoire he so despised. I had the impression that Elder had Verdi in mind, a comparison that might please many, but not me. Nevertheless, during the slower passages, the strings of the Hallé – when did it stop being the Hallé Orchestra? – sounded unusually rich for an English orchestra. Once Elder had settled down a bit, there was an impressive command of line to be heard, but it was too late. This performance did not add up to more than the sum of his parts; I cannot imagine that it would have converted any of the still numerous Berlioz sceptics out there.

La mort de Cléopâtre was another matter altogether and could be accounted an unqualified success. The presence of Susan Graham certainly helped. By turns imperious, deranged, wistful, and devastated, her effortless command, both of the French text – almost if not quite always audible – and of Berlioz’s tricky vocal lines ensured that one truly understood and experienced the fate of that most alluring and tragic of heroines. That Cleopatra was the last of her line, the shame she therefore felt at her actions, could hardly have been more palpable, likewise the inexorability of fate. A similar figure, Cassandre from Les Troyens, beckoned as life ebbed away in the final stanza. But here, as elsewhere, the orchestra was an equal partner in the tragedy, the desolation of the final few bars truly worthy of the life and line extinguished. Such had been apparent from the very opening, in which orchestral turbulence plunged us in medias res. Thereafter, the alertness of the Hallé’s and Elder’s response to Graham was impeccable. The crucial transformation of atmosphere at the opening of the Méditation was established forthwith, from the pizzicato strings and funereal trombones. Later, plangent woodwind joined the ominous triple-time rhythmic tread. Fate could not be stopped; nor, so captivated had one become, did one wish it to be.

Mendelssohn’s second symphony, the Lobgesang, has not been blessed at the Proms. According to the programme, it was last performed forty years ago, by Rudolph Schwarz and the Philharmonia, and before that, one had to go back to the turn of the century for no fewer than three performances under Sir Henry Wood. Fashions change, of course, and this is a work that lends itself to be tainted with suspicions of Victorianism. I sensed an eagerness on Elder’s part to dispel such suspicions; however, I was far less convinced by the way he went about it.

The first section of the opening Sinfonia was brisk, to put it mildly, and bright rather than grand: a strange understanding, at least to my ears, of the instruction, Maestoso con moto. The following Allegro sounded more like a Presto and, crucially, ended up sounding breathless. Even fast music, indeed often fast music in particular, needs space from time to time to breathe. One might argue, I suppose, that Mendelssohn’s own practice warrants a hurried approach. Certainly a passage in Wagner’s wonderful essay, On Conducting, suggests this. Concerning a Dresden performance of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, Wagner remarked:

I told Mendelssohn that I believed I had convinced ... [the conductor that he should] take the tempo slower than usual. Mendelssohn perfectly agreed with me. We listened. The third movement began and I was horrified to hear precisely the same old Ländler tempo; but before I could voice my annoyance, Mendelssohn smiled and pleasantly nodded his head ... I thought myself standing before an abyss of superficiality, a veritable void.

Wagner was quite right about the tempo of that minuet, though modern practice has largely disowned his advice. However – and this, I realise, might be considered a controversial twist – a better way to absolve Mendelssohn of unfair (Wagnerian or otherwise) accusations of superficiality than aping Mendelssohn’s own preferences or manners, even if it were possible to establish them, might be to hear a little more Wagner in Mendelssohn. Flexibility of tempo, a sense of drama and occasion: these go a long way to rescue the composer both from hidebound Victorian pieties and from superficialities either of the composer’s own time or ours. Karajan understood this, at least instinctively, and recorded a truly commanding version of this symphony. I could not help but wish that Elder’s reading had resembled that recording, or at least that of Claudio Abbado, a little more.

For there clearly was something of an ‘authenticist’ agenda at work here, and not just in the tempi. The strings – with one notable exception later on – were permitted vibrato, but very short bow strokes were the order of the day. One definite advantage was splitting of the violins, however, permitting one to hear fully the delightful antiphonal exchanges between the two violin parts. Nevertheless, and despite the large orchestra, an apparent ‘lightness’ was insisted upon, akin to that which is often, misguidedly, inflicted nowadays upon another ‘early Romantic’, Schumann. Both composers end up sounding short-breathed and foursquare. (Perhaps this is partly what was going on in the Berlioz overture, though certainly not in La mort de Cléopâtre.) The Allegretto un poco agitato was graceful within its short-breathed confines, but again did not help Mendelssohn escape accusations of elegant superficiality. Woodwind solos, however, were ravishing: straight out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Adagio religioso was taken at quite a flowing pace, yet it sounded pleasingly unaffected, like a Song Without Words. Again, the woodwind provided additional pleasure, but the strings seemed uncertain whether to opt for Romantic warmth or ‘period’ inhibition.

With the advent of the chorus – or rather, choruses – matters improved considerably. I have nothing but praise for the Hallé Choir and Hallé Youth Choir, both clearly impeccably trained by their chorus masters, James Burton and Gregory Batsleer. A full yet clear choral sound announced itself from the very first entry. The clarity of the counterpoint made Mendelssohn, quite rightly, sound more Bachian than is often the case, and yet with no sacrifice to weight of tone. Orchestral mannerisms were less apparent, though not less present, during the choral movements. It was also a delight to hear a full contribution, here and elsewhere, from the organ. In the chorus, ‘Sagt es, die ihr erlöset seid,’ the choral singing was nothing short of superlative: dramatically characterful in the fashion of the Bach Passions and Handel’s oratorios, and demonstrating triumphantly that large forces need not entail fusty piety. The a cappella first stanza of ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ – that echt-Lutheran chorale – approached perfection, every word and every note audible and meaningful, as if we were hearing an outsize College choir.

Steve Davislim’s tenor contributions were generally of a high standard, especially in the flexible recitative – at last some flexibility! – of ‘Saget es, die ihr erlöst seid durch den Herrn’. The following passage, ‘Er zählet unsre Tränen,’ was also well sung but let down by gingerly treated orchestral parts. If only the Hallé’s musicians had been allowed to sing more. When, at last they were, in the second stanza of ‘Nun danket alle Gott,’ the effect was undeniably powerful – and moving. (I should, however, note an excellent horn solo in ‘Ich harrete des Herrn’.) I felt extremely sorry for Sally Matthews in her solo following the first chorus. Taken at an utterly breackneck speed – Mendelssohn marks it Molto più moderato ma con fuoco – she sounded and looked rushed, harassed even, which may help to explain some very odd vowel sounds. In that cruelly exposed solo turning-point, ‘Die Nacht ist vergangen,’ she was almost, but not quite, there in terms of intonation. (Having lauded Karajan’s recording, I should perhaps note that Edith Mathis is further away there.) During the extraordinary – indeed rather Wagnerian – tenor lead-up to this moment, Davislim was variable. A darker orchestral sound would have helped, but he also on occasion proved over-rhetorical, breaking up the musical line on the first call of ‘Hüter, ist die Nacht bald hin?’ (‘Watchman, will the night soon pass?’) Having said that, he improved upon its repetitions, bringing a sense of eagerness to the coming of the day: in this work, allied to the advent of the printed word.

Elder continued, however, to provide jarring orchestral contributions, most notably of all in the horribly emaciated sound of the lower strings in ‘Drum sing’ ich mit meinem Liede’. It could have been a slightly augmented viol consort we heard. An exultant opening to the final chorus provided some compensation, but this was to an extent vitiated by the return to an excessively fast tempo for the final lines. I suppose he had to do so, since it is marked Maestoso come I, but the come I part of the instruction negated any sense of majesty. There were, then, good things in this performance but, like that of the Berlioz overture, there were many aspects that neither convinced on their own terms nor complemented each other.