Thursday 29 July 2010

Prom 15: Josefowicz/BBC SO/Knussen - Stockhausen, Birtwistle, Colin Matthews, Luke Bedford, Zimmermann, and Schumann, 28 July 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Stockhausen – Jubilee (first Proms performance)
Birtwistle – Sonance Severance 2000 (first Proms performance)
Colin Matthews – Violin Concerto (London premiere)
Luke Bedford – Outblaze the Sky (first Proms performance)
Zimmermann – Rheinische Kirmestänze (first Proms performance)
Schumann – Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, ‘Rhenish’, op.97

Leila Josefowicz (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen (conductor)

Not the most coherent of programmes this. One might claim a Rhenish connection between the delightful Zimmermann dances and the Schumann symphony, Stockhausen too at a pinch; the middle three works are all by English composers. But a sandwich of nationality does not itself a programme make. There was much to enjoy, though, even if there was not much sense of a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The problematic performance was the last; I shall get that out of the way first. Knussen conducting Schumann was an interesting prospect: hardly his core repertoire. The outer movements, however, were extremely disappointing, despite surprisingly good performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, much better than in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony on the First Night. I have never heard a brisker opening to the first movement, though I do not spend my time listening to the wilder reaches of ‘period’ performance. Schumann’s tempo indication, Lebhaft, does not, however, imply metronomic rigidity, which is what we had here: the antithesis of ‘lively’ in fact. Phrasing was short-breathed too. Some might have discerned ‘urgency’, I suppose; for me, the effect was more akin to a series of premature ejaculations, with, as one might expect, rapidly diminishing returns. The development somehow meandered at speed, whilst the recapitulation seemed almost to be over before it had begun. I spent the while wishing for Sawallisch, Thielemann, or a host of others. The prospect of a modernist Schumann was genuinely intriguing, but this was not what we heard; Boulez used to perform quite a lot of Schumann, so it seems as though we shall have to wait for release of his old radio recordings. Much better was the scherzo, which flowed nicely, much to the benefit of the orchestral sound. Ironically, there was not only greater beauty to that sound but there was greater heft to the orchestra than there had been during the Mahler. To this and the third movement there was an appealing Mendelssohn-like quality, the latter movement sounding properly like an intermezzo. It would have been good to hear a little more yield in the music’s ebb and flow, however. The ‘Cologne Cathedral’ movement was really rather good. Thielemann-style Wagnerian gravity would have been out of place in such a performance, but the brass nevertheless sounded imposing and the violins, to my surprise, revelled in their Continental sheen. Alas, the finale was little more than an untidy scramble. One was left with the impression that the programme, performed in three rather than two parts, had one piece too many.

Back to the recent future, then, with Stockhausen’s JUBILÄUM (JUBILEE), commissioned for the Hanover Opera’s 125th anniversary in 1977. This is a true rarity, not even featuring upon the Stockhausen-Verlag recorded edition. I am not sure why, for it is written for relatively conventional orchestral forces and presents no obvious challenges for the listener. If anything, it is somewhat disappointingly ‘mainstream’ – or at least appears so to start with. Once one has listened one’s way in, Stockhausen’s ritual becomes ever more compelling, ever more real. Messiaen more than once sprang to mind, especially his Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. The workings are clear, the twelve-note formula and its transpositions audible to all, but the whirling music of the apparently subsidiary groups adds fantasy to the hieratic procession. (The same could not be said of a mobile telephone intervention.) Trombones and tuba from a box above added further solemnity: a connection perhaps to Gabrieli’s Venice or the venerable German tradition of Schütz. Whilst others employ off-stage brass, Stockhausen surprises with off-stage oboes, an effect that yet connects with the past, in this case Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Soloists stood in turn: horn, violin, flute, and oboe, each joining the other(s) as intensity mounted. Their contributions were outstanding – and the rest of the orchestra was pretty good too.

Birtwistle’s Sonance Severance 2000, commissioned for the reopening of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Severance Hall, was an all too brief opening to the second part. Growing out of a primæval bass C, a typical creatio ex nihilo statement, the rest of the orchestra awakens, in a fashion not entirely unlike the swirling groups of Stockhausen’s ‘overture’. There is characteristically masterful brass writing, clearly relished by the BBC forces and Knussen. But it was the final solo trumpet call that truly haunted: a reminiscence of the opening to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony? Luke Bedford’s 2006 Outblaze the Sky impressed too: a short, six-minute work, in a sense a process of orchestral growth parallel to the Birtwistle, though it glows in a fashion quite foreign to the senior composer. What struck me, even before the virtuosic handling of harmonics, flutter-tonguing, and so forth, was a voice that, on first hearing at least, sounded original. If anyone, Mark-Anthony Turnage came to mind, but I could not claim that the music really sounded ‘like’ his. At any rate, there was an impressive build up to climax, for which the BBC SO and Knussen should also be credited.

There were connections to be made, then, but it was not clear how they would be made with Colin Matthews’s Violin Concerto, which came in between the Birtwistle and Bedford pieces. I quite enjoyed this London premiere of the work, finely performed by orchestra and soloist, Leila Josefowicz (sporting an eye-catching zebra-print dress), but much of it sounded as if it could have been written eighty years or more earlier and models such as Prokofiev, Szymanowski, and Berg were audibly apparent. The first of the two movements boasted luscious, luxuriant harmonies, but drew a little close to the Berg concerto for comfort. (I am not sure, however, that this necessitated a distracting walk-out from a woman in the row in front of me, clicking her high heels as she went.) Josefowicz clearly relished the composer’s grateful virtuosity, however, as did the BBC SO’s splendid percussion section, joined by a flexitone in the darker second movement. Here there seemed perhaps to be more of an individual voice: the tolling percussion sounded ominous indeed. I cannot imagine a more auspicious London premiere in any case.

Last but not least, I come to Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Rheinische Kirmestänze. It was worth the visit to the Royal Albert Hall just for these. Never having heard them before, I was taken aback by their wicked sense of fun, freely distorting traditional dances for the Cologne carnival in recompositions for seventeen instruments (wind and four double basses). If Petrushka sprang to mind in the first, it was the Stravinskian ghost of Pulcinella that cheekily hovered over the rest, though there was perhaps a dash of the spirit of Webern’s Schubert arrangements too. Bizarre though the claim may sound, the dance in which piccolos sound against oom-pah tuba even reminded me – at a distance – of Vaughan Williams. If we must have a Last Night of the Proms, might we at least hear these pieces, perhaps with works such as the Overture (either of them, or both) to Peter Cornelius’s Barber of Baghdad and Busoni’s Tanzwalzer? Such would go a long way to redeem the ghastly chauvinism that still infects the occasion.