Thursday, 9 September 2010

Prom 74: BBC PO/Noseda - Schubert, Schumann, Holloway, and Mozart, 9 September 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Schubert – Symphony no.8 in B minor, ‘Unfinished’, D 759
Schumann – Introduction and Allegro appassionato, in G major, op.92
Robin Holloway – RELIQUARY: Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, enclosing an instrumentation of Schumann’s ‘Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart’ (BBC commission: world premiere)
Mozart – Symphony no.40 in G minor, KV 550

Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)
Finghin Collins (piano)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Gianandrea Noseda (conductor)

This was not, thank goodness, the Last Night of the Proms, a jamboree better left to readers of the Daily Mail, but my last night of the 2010 BBC Proms. The principal attractions a priori were the Schumann Introduction and Allegro appassionato, a rarity in performance, and Robin Holloway’s new RELIQUARY: Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, enclosing an instrumentation of Schumann’s ‘Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart’. In practice too? By and large, for the performances of the two symphonic masterpieces on either side, whilst benefiting from fine orchestral playing, were marred by insensitive conducting from Gianandrea Noseda.

I did not necessarily expect Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony to sound so shattering as upon the last occasion I had heard it in concert, in a truly great performance from Bernard Haitink and the London Symphony Orchestra. However, I was nevertheless disappointed when an intriguingly nervy opening gave way to the merely abrupt, with stabbing accents that would have been out of place in Beethoven, let alone Schubert. Worse still, the music was never permitted to breathe. Toscanini-followers – perhaps a few still exist somewhere – might have enjoyed this, I suppose, but no one who has responded to Furtwängler. There were occasional oases of mystery in the development section, when Noseda was not hurrying – or better, harrying – the music along, but this remained a bandmaster’s reading. The swift ‘slow’ movement was similar: not only could one hear every bar-line, every beat; one could predict where those following would fall too, and a good deal hence. Beautiful playing, judged in itself, above all from the BBC Philharmonic’s woodwind section, was hidebound by such regimentation.

The Schumann piece emerged similarly, though mitigating circumstances of rarity and some impressive piano playing lessened the disappointment. The ‘Introduction’ actually sounded relatively relaxed, chamber-like, if still too obviously directed. One only had to recall Claudio Abbado’s conducting of the Berlin Philharmonic for Murray Perahia’s recording to realise how this fell short. Yet, if Finghin Collins is not Perahia, his pearly tone proved not wholly dissimilar. He managed to conjure up moments of true Schumannesque delicacy and fantasy, before being corralled by the bandmaster at his side. Occasional moments of orchestral intimacy again suggested what might have been, but they seemed snatched by the players rather than part of Noseda’s strategy. Ultimately, and despite real promise from Collins, this wonderful piece sounded both rushed and laboured – and insubstantial.

After the interval, it was, then, a great pleasure to turn to the premiere of Holloway’s orchestration and encasing of and commentary on Schumann’s Songs of Mary Stuart. In a new work – well, new and old, in this case – one is less likely to be distracted by interpretation and more likely to focus upon the work itself, whatever that might mean. Moreover, this premiere proved a splendid follow up to the Nash Ensemble’s Proms matinee performance of Holloway’s Fantasy-Pieces (on the Heine ‘Liederkreis’ of Schumann). I was intrigued by the Prologue, Holloway’s own. Marked ‘Brief, lamenting, calming,’ the orchestration sounds relatively ‘German’, but the harmony surprisingly Gallic, recalling Poulenc at his more solemn. The Abschied von Frankreich is characterised by ever-present harp, and occasional hints of Webern-like instrumentation, Wagner becoming more present in Holloway’s re-imagining of the epilogue, highlighting its Tristan-esque tendencies. Nach der Geburt ihres Sohnes is more radical, with an orchestral ‘halo’, including iridescent celesta and woodwind, shining, in different tempo and tonality, above the song itself. Violins evoke a refractory dreamlike world somewhere between Rosenkavalier and early Schoenberg. The gravity of the concluding vocal ‘Amen’, here perfectly delivered by Dorothea Röschmann, draws attention back to the sombreness that has essentially characterised the contrasting vocal setting itself. An entr’acte of sarabande and bourrée, evocative of Mary’s happier days in France, prepares the way for her imploring, yet reproachful song to her cousin, An die Königin Elisabeth. Wagner again sprang to mind, and this time it was more Schumann’s doing than Holloway’s. These songs have been so undervalued!

Woodwind solos in the ensuing entr’acte provide Wagnerian presentiments of material that will follow, but also assist the sense of moving downwards, a perky enclosed miniature scherzino notwithstanding, to the sombre business of saying farewell to the world. Sadly, this most Mahlerian (almost inevitably so) of the songs, Abschied von der Welt, was disrupted by a barrage of coughing excessive even by the standards of this year’s Proms. A Romantic cello solo lies at the heart of the next entr’acte, harp and other strings prominent, woodwind responding thereto. The drum’s intervention hints ominously at Mary’s fate. The final song, Gebet (‘Prayer’) brings resignation, but also more play with the ‘past’. The vocal line, ‘Ersehne ich Dich,’ is echoed movingly by plangent viola, apparently joining cause with the viols of another age. And the arch-Romantic horn provides the solo that echoes, hopelessly, Mary beseeching her God to rescue her. Holloway’s ‘Epilogue’ provides a neat encapsulation of the conflict and synergy between centuries, the sarabande reprised, likewise material from the Prologue. As a whole, the song cycle appeared transformed, more akin to an operatic scena, and yet restrained, fastidious enough to mark the difference. Röschmann’s performance seemed beyond reproach, equally responsive to words and music, her vocal line modulated yet never strained.

Finally, Mozart’s Symphony no.40. This performance, again not unimpressive in purely orchestral terms, started off better than the Schubert, preferable to the appallingly mannered reading I endured from Sir Simon Rattle last year. The first movement was swift, on the light side, but nevertheless possessed grace. It was hardly Karl Böhm, and would have benefited from a more open response to Mozart’s astonishing proto-Romanticism – or, as ETA Hoffmann had it, simply Romanticism, and he should have known – but Mozart was not entirely misrepresented either. The slow movement flowed, more quickly than one used to hear, but it is an Andante. Noseda’s was a highly vocal conception, more Figaro-like than knocking at the Beethovenian door: a valid standpoint, even if somewhere in between might have revealed more. Repeats, though, made it a bit of a long haul. The third movement, however, took a turn for the worst. Noseda took it far too fast, almost waltz-like, albeit without the slightest hint of relaxation. It turned out rather choppy, each phrase here and in the inconsequential-sounding trio – how does one make Mozart sound inconsequential? – being merely followed by another, with no sense of overall line. The finale was fast – fair enough – but fatiguingly hard-driven. Tragedy is so much more interesting than this.