Friday 19 July 2013

Prom 9: BBC NOW/Søndergård - Stenhammar, Szymanowski, and Strauss, 18 July 2013

Royal Albert Hall

Stenhammar – Excelsior!, op.13
Szymanowski – Symphony no.3, ‘Song of the Night’, op.27
Strauss – Eine Alpensinfonie, op.64

Michael Weinius (tenor)

BBC National Chorus of Wales
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Thomas Søndergård (conductor)

The imaginative alliterative programming of Stenhammar, Szymanowski, and Strauss could not, alas, salvage the Swedish composer’s Excelsior! Though the performance from the BBC NOW and Thomas Søndergård seemed highly committed, it remained a dull, meandering attempt, never quite realised, to become a lowlier version of Elgar, the blatant debt to Brahms less absorbed than in anything I can think of in Elgar himself. There was lovely woodwind playing and, at least at times, a fierce dramatic drive, with impressive orchestral unanimity, but this was an anonymous piece, played well. At least it was anonymous until a high violin line was filched from Act III of Siegfried. Liszt’s piece of the same name – of which the writer of the programme note seemed strangely unaware – may not show the composer at his greatest, but it nevertheless has far more to offer.

With Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, however, we heard a true masterpiece, one that at long last finally seems to be receiving its due. The orchestral opening proved both gorgeous and purposeful; if we are now spoiled by Boulez’s quite outstanding recent Vienna Philharmonic recording, the BBC NOW nevertheless offered, the occasional fluffed entry notwithstanding, a fine performance. Lesley Hatfield’s violin solos proved especially beguiling. I was less taken with Michael Weinius’s unyielding tenor, though it is a good thing to have the work’s homoeroticism more firmly underlined by a male soloist. There was excellent choral singing, though, allied to a fine sense of binding processional; this, Søndergård assured us, was a symphony, not a cantata. Rhythm and harmonic rhythm worked in tandem to ensure that. And there was true stillness at the heart: ‘How still it is! All asleep ... and I alone with God!’ Szymanowski at perhaps his most overtly Tristan-esque followed, the Night full of erotic promise and fulfilment, the mighty Royal Albert Hall organ adding greatly to Szymanowski’s orgasmic climaxes, far more surely prepared and placed than in Vladimir Jurowski’s LPO performance last year.

Strauss’s Alpine Symphony suffered somewhat by comparison. Though in many respects a colourful performance, this never reached the symphonic heights of Bernard Haitink and the VPO last year at the Proms (an odious comparison, I am sure, but one that lingered in the memory). Tempi tended to be swift, especially earlier on, Søndergård’s ‘Ascent’ a plausible candidate for ‘speedy boarding’. Matters were certainly not helped by pointing and chattering from sections of the audience whenever a new instrument was employed; we can hear cowbells perfectly well for ourselves without audience participation, thank you. Brass were sometimes a little on the crude side. However, Søndergård conjured up a nicely phantasmagorical scene at the waterfall; here, one could imagine, the sprites might be nastier than a picture postcard would ever imply. Ultimately, though, this remained more of a tour of Nature than a Nietzschean hymn, lacking the symphonic binding so wonderfully apparent in the Szymanowski. The ‘Epilogue’, then, sounded as if to attest the truth of a remark attributed to Karajan, namely that he conducted the work for the sake of the Epilogue alone.