Thursday 5 August 2010

Prom 25: London Sinfonietta/Atherton - Bach and Stravinsky, 4 August 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Bach – Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 – Chorale: ‘Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein’ (on organ)
Bach – Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her,’ BWV 769
Bach-Stravinsky – Chorale Varations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch’, BWV 769
Stravinsky – Threni

Elizabeth Atherton (soprano)
Hilary Summers (mezzo-soprano)
Alan Oke (tenor)
Andrew Kennedy (tenor)
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)
Sir John Tomlinson (bass)
Daniel Hyde (organ)
BBC Singers (chorus master: Paul Brough)
London Sinfonietta
David Atherton (conductor)

On paper, this looked like one of the most intelligently planned Proms in this year’s series. How would it turn out in practice? Just as well, a heartening reminder of how difficult and yet crucial good programming can be. Not only, astonishingly, was this the Proms premiere of Threni; the Bach-Stravinsky connection was explored in just the way conductors were able to do before period fundamentalists declared Bach off bounds for modern musicians – and, tragically, won. The counter-attack would have been aided by some ‘straight’, unhyphenated Bach being performed by the orchestra too, not just on the organ, but there is something about gift-horses and their mouths…

Daniel Hyde opened with Bach’s harmonisation of the Vom himmel hoch chorale for Christmas Day, albeit transposed down a tone, so as to fit with the Variations to follow. The organist gave a decent account of these extraordinary pieces of canonic wizardry, though he proved a little hidebound – forgive the pun – by more than a hint of the metronome, a few slowings down seeming arbitrary or necessitated by contrapuntal complexity rather than musical strategy. Registrations were relatively ‘Baroque’ by the standards of the Royal Albert Hall instrument, which of course is not very ‘Baroque’ at all, the reeds being something of an acquired taste, but Hyde steered clear of probing the labyrinthine, Bergian complexities of the music: brightness and order were very much to the fore. And yet, though this certainly is not my Bach, I began to realise that this was actually rather close to Stravinsky’s, which was probably more the point in this programme. The ‘sewing-machine’ approach of post-war organists, harpischordists, and chamber orchestras was very much the soil from which Stravinsky’s anti-Romantic Bach emerged. (Interested readers may care to look at Richard Taruskin’s work in Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (Oxford, 1995), and my own critique of Taruskin: ‘Romantic Modernism: Bach, Furtwängler, and Adorno,’ in New German Critique, 104 (Spring/Summer 2008), pp. 71-102.)

Stravinsky’s equally extraordinary recomposition followed: all of Bach’s counterpoint, further embellished. How rich, and yet how deliciously typical, or typically delicious, for someone who fulminated against others for creating Bach in their own image! (A favourite instance of mine is this: ‘The Saint Matthew’s Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach is written for a chamber-music ensemble. Its first performance in Bach’s lifetime was perfectly realized by a total force of thirty-four musicians, including soloists and chorus. That is known. And nevertheless in our day one does not hesitate to present the work, in complete disregard of the composer’s wishes, with hundreds of performers, sometimes almost a thousand. This lack of understanding of the interpreter’s obligations, this arrogant pride in numbers, this concupiscence of the many, betray a complete lack of musical education.’ The barefaced cheek of coupling an attack upon ‘this arrogant pride in numbers,’ whilst lauding a precise number of thirty-four musicians…) The London Sinfonietta under David Atherton played as Stravinskians to the manner born. At first I thought the BBC Singers a little underpowered, but soon realised that it would have been quite distorting – and not in a positive, Stravinskian sense – to punch out the chorale as if with an organ trumpet stop: the point here is the counterpoint, as it were, since we knew the chorale itself inside out by now. But there is simpler rejoicing to be had too: it is Christmas after all, as the opening brass reminded us, inescapably suggesting Renaissance polyphony. What struck me throughout was how utterly Stravinsky recreates Bach in his own image. The first variation teemed with life, Agon-like, Helen Tunstall’s harp in particular; the third sounded like a sequel to the Symphony in Three Movements. Michael Cox’s excellent flute solos should be given mention here. And the astonishing – even by Bach’s, Stravinsky’s, and Bach-Stravinsky’s standards – final variation wore its fast tempo lightly, quite justified by a performance in which one could hear every last contrapuntal artifice.

The neglect of Threni is incomprehensible to me, but then so is that of Webern. I am delighted to report that this fine performance will surely have made a host of converts. Stravinsky’s Lamentations thrived, as so often, counter-intuitively, do smaller-scale works, in the Royal Albert Hall. One has to listen and one does – and one is not expecting weight of sound. Such was clear from the canons in the Complaint of De elegia tertia. The opening Incipit made an instant sonorous connection with the Bach Variations, one maintained and furthered throughout the performance. Indeed, I was throughout struck by the vividness of Stravinsky’s sparing instrumentation – and its proximity to late Webern. The keenness of syncopation in the second part of De elegia tertia could have been nothing other than an utterly Stravinskian take upon the Austrian composer. Duets, for instance those of the two tenors in De elegia prima, were rich in musical reference: Webern certainly, but the Renaissance and Monteverdi too, all the way back to the synagogue. Soloists who made an especial impression were the rich-toned Hilary Summers, whom I recently admired in Le marteau sans maître, and the inimitable John Tomlinson. Somehow, as ever, he made this music his own, even with a wide vibrato one might have thought antithetical to Stravinskian intervallic precision. It did not matter; indeed, it humanised, and his diction was superb. Stravinsky’s authentic voice shone through his intellectual challenges: the originality of this work is something special even by his own standards. And the response to Jeremiah’s text is simply perfect, a setting that takes us all the way back to Hebrew roots, and yet down so many avenues thereafter, fused in an almost frighteningly coherent whole. The final De elegia quinta, in work and performance, invoked and indeed reconciled with the magical conclusion to the Symphony of Psalms. Simple, yet complex; distanced, yet close.