Tuesday 16 July 2013

Prom 5: Arditti Qt/Bamberg SO/Nott - Lachenmann and Mahler, 15 July 2013

Royal Albert Hall

Lachenmann – Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied (British premiere)
Mahler – Symphony no.5

Arditti Quartet
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
Jonathan Nott (conductor)
Given the stalwart service of the BBC in the cause of new music, I was astonished to learn that this was the first time any of Helmut Lachenmann’s music had been programmed at the Proms. Better late than never, I suppose, and it certainly came in a provocative coupling, his Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. It made a great deal of sense, of course, given Lachenmann’s preoccupation with re-examination of tradition, and specifically German tradition. Yet depressingly, a quick perusal of Youtube comments on the piece betrays the sort of reaction the composer is still likely to face in some quarters: ‘It has nothing to do with music, it is nothing but rubbish,’ writes one ‘Utz Beahre’, in response to the question without question-mark posed by ‘jonnyrs1’: ‘could someone please explain to me what the hell this has to do with music!! Thank God for Mahler 5 at the Proms!!’ Whatever complaints we might all have with concerning the BBC, at least it has not entirely capitulated to such boorish, ignorant philistinism.

For the Arditti Quartet, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, and Jonathan Nott offered an outstanding performance: just the sort of advocacy that ought to convince anyone willing to listen rather than merely to hurl a priori abuse. We all know that Lachenmann can provoke, though never for the sake of mere provocation; here, he was shown to scintillate, to beguile, and perhaps above all, to dance, indeed foot-tappingly so. The lengthy opening passage for quartet alone – played, as throughout with pin-point precision, though far more than just precision – offered a mini-compendium of the players’ superlative extended techniques. As often in the Royal Albert Hall, and despite coughing, even talking, intimate music drew one in, made one listen. Then came the orchestral call and the highly rhythmical pizzicato section it unleashed in our latter-day concerto grosso. It was less Bach, let alone Vivaldi, summoned up, though, than the ghost of what must rank as Schoenberg’s zaniest piece, the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, after Handel. Lachenmann, however, goes far beyond Schoenberg as inventor, ushering us in to a veritable workshop – somehow the German Werkstatt seems more apt – of ideas. A workshop, be it noted, not a laboratory: craft, rather than positivistic science, is celebrated here, as it was in the scintillating performance. Shards of earlier music make their presence felt, not entirely dissimilar to Berio’s practice, though arguably less conciliatory. A tapped rhythm put me in mind of the Baroque passacaglia, whether or no that were actually ‘intended’. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio offers epiphany of its own, whilst ‘O du lieber Augustin’ inevitably registers not only as itself but as a reminder of Schoenberg’s scorned usage in his Second String Quartet, a reference that surely had particular resonance for such fine exponents as the Arditti Quartet. But was that Mahler in the orchestra, or was it merely my fancy? Was there even the ghost of an oom-pah band, that in itself perhaps a reference to Bernd Alois Zimmemann. Even in 1979-80, when daggers really ought to have been drawn with Henze, was there an unconscious note of affinity, betokening a shared disturbance with respect to German musical tradition, when the raucous, even raunchy dance-music threatened to shade almost into a reminiscence of Boulevard Solitude Stan Kenton jazz? Lachenmann asks such questions, or permits us to ask them, without definitely providing answers. In that, he is most certainly and emphatically a German Composer.  The players demonstrated the necessity of a great performance; I have heard Lachenmann almost killed under a lesser conductor (Sylvain Cambreling). Here, music drew upon its historical inheritance of fantasy, caprice, even whimsy, without a hint of sentimentality; and aptly, it did so under the auspices of an orchestra from Bamberg, the city that escaped Allied bombing. The still, almost glacial, conclusion seemed to breathe purer air once again; for me, on this occasion, it was the ‘Adagio’ to the Hammerklavier Sonata that came to my mind. If Beethoven still lives, then so does music.

I was worried that the performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony might suffer by comparison. Not a bit of it: Nott and the Bamberg SO proved just as outstanding as they had in Lachenmann. The opening tattoo (Markus Mester) was purposeful, even militant, with a finely-judged move into string foreboding. (It was at that point that I realised the tone of the Bamberg strings was reminding me of the Czech Philharmonic of old: perhaps no mere coincidence, given that it was formed in 1946 by German refugees, fleeing the ethnic cleansing of the Beneš Decrees.) Gorgeous yet baleful woodwind evoked Mozart and an idealised village band in almost equal measure. All the while, the cortège continued its progress. Nott’s command of line never failed him, whether in this first movement or elsewhere: a signal achievement in itself in what remains a very difficult symphony indeed to carry off convincingly. And how the players turned their phrases! Not narcissistically, but charged with tragic, musical meaning. Lilt and rubato sounded effortlessly ‘natural’; Mahler was clearly under their skin. Nott proved equally adept at the phantasmagorical skill of turning a corner, revealing a new vista, and yet needing to offer no reminder that this remained the same movement, the same work. The conclusion, not least Ulrich Biersack’s hopeless flute solo, duly chilled. To that, there came a furious attacca response. Mood-swings were more intense in this second movement, yet line remained unbroken. I was put in mind of Rafael Kubelík’s Mahler, a slightly more modernistic sheen certainly not eclipsing the depth of ‘tradition’ in a good sense. Dialectics, then, abounded, as they should, indeed must. Death himself – Himself? – danced, reminding us of Lachenmann, yet danced still more seductively, the violin solo (an excellent Baer Vandenbogaerde) inevitably bringing to mind Mahler’s preceding symphony. Those echt-Mahlerian marionettes, unholy offspring of Berlioz and Nietzsche, menaced, yet charmed. This was a movement terrifying through its musicality, not through the all-too-easy path of external ‘effect’. It was not least for that reason that the chorale sent shivers down the spine, even though – perhaps because – we knew its ‘triumph’ would prove hollow. Mahler’s return to the Inferno seemed but a stone’s throw from the terror of his Sixth Symphony.

The scherzo opened with articulation as fine and as warm as one might have hoped for in an ‘old school’ Haydn performance. (Think of Furtwängler in the 88th.) Gemütlichkeit, needless to say, gave way to ambiguous marionettes, doused in a mixture of Bach and acid, working their nihilistic magic. This movement, then, proved properly full of irreconcilables; indeed, it overflowed with them. And yet – it made sense. Counterpoint was both full and empty, sometimes simultaneously. The awestruck stillness, which yet continued to offer motion, of the trio offered Schubertian longing (the Unfinished Symphony in particular) in its shadow, rendering the reprise of the scherzo an absolute necessity. Such extremity of effort would not of course be resolved here; the battle nevertheless engrossed, riveted, terrified.

Nott played the Adagietto as it works best, as a declaration of love, rather than a feast of maudlin onanism. It was beautiful, tender, yet without a hint of self-regard. If fanciers of Visconti’s wretched filmic treatment still exist, the reading might be likened to a Tadzio upon whom Aschenbach had not so much as laid eyes. More importantly, it consoled and moved us through musical  understanding, a true command of harmonic rhythm obviating any perceived need for imposition of irrelevant ‘personality’. And my goodness, the emotional, physical charge those Bamberg strings elicited! One could actually fancy that this represented love as Mahler might have conceived of it: unfathomably complex, yet devastatingly sincere. The follow on of the finale was, once again, judged perfectly. It exhibited welcome sparkle, even lightness, though that should not be taken to indicate lack of depth. Good humour is not a trivial thing, certainly not in Mahler, and these things are without doubt highly relative here in any case. Should one take seriously the ‘battle’ between Brandenburg-counterpoint and mockery of ‘high intellect’? It was not the least of Nott’s even-handed yet committed approach that one never quite knew. Detail was keenly observed, yet he never mistook trees for the wood. Shadows continued to haunt: how could it be otherwise when the undergrowth was as variegated as here?