The Luxury of Excellence

The advantages of r

unning a truly excellent symphony orchestra include the relative ease with which one can get great and in-demand conductors. One of the advantages of great and popular conductors (and technically also the popular not-so-great ones, but let’s ignore that possibility for the moment) is that the orchestra’s artistic administration can get away with a little more daring programming because audiences will still (within limits) flock to a concert to see and hear what the popular baton-waver has to say.

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is such an orchestra. Quite young, excellent, and demanding of themselves – the unscientific but surprisingly accurate orchestra face-check reveals not a bored of self-satisfied mug among them.[1] It is in fact one of the few totally reliably excellent symphony orchestras out there.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin is such a conductor. And the leadership of the BRSO are the lucky bastards who get to play with these ingredients and, to boot, a quality audience. (See also: National Symphony Orchestra’s New Conductor Ideal – But Audience Quality Has To Match Him) They often make the most of it, too, such as in the concerts on February 16/17, which were examples of inspired programming.[2] Namely a combination of the bitter sweet and the sweet bitter. Mahler’s ‘unfinished’ Tenth Symphony (in Deryck Cooke “performing version”) as the big-bill romantic anchor (but actually a fierce and ferocious, aggressively modern work) and Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, nominally 12-tone music and box-office poison (but actually a wonderful, romantic piece of music, given enough time).

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Photo courtesy BRSO

The Sound of Broken Hearts

Two compositions, therefore, that are working away at that hazy demarcation line between romanticism and modernism – from both sides and both reaching well into the other world, crossing paths along the way. For an added bonus, the two works have a strong extra-musical link. Alban Berg’s concerto was written “To the Memory of an Angel” – and this angel was the beautiful Manon Gropius who died of Polio at age 18. Manon was the daughter of Alma Mahler-Werfel and Walter Gropius. Manon was the result of the dalliance with the architect Gropius which began while Mahler was still very much alive and Alma’s husband.

Mahler was composing the 10th Symphony at the time, and received a love-letter from Gropius to Alma but, curiously, addressed to Gustav. Mahler, who had thought that his gravest marriage troubles had been overcome, was crushed and you can hear it in that symphony, as plainly as if it were a diary. The source of the mourning in one work is thus the product of the source of anguish in the other.

Meat and Potatoes and Beethovenian Seething

First up was the Berg concerto which Veronika Eberle, a young violinist at the cusp of a grand career, hailing from the Swabian town of Donauwörth[3], opened with calm, almost mechanical rigor but expressive passion. Every note was given pressure and intensity, an aspect that didn’t change for the entire duration of the concerto – to the point of ennui. What this did was give a sense of meat-and-potatoes to the Berg concerto which must have its place among interpretative alternatives, but I can’t say that I prefer it over the carnal grief of Isabelle Faust (Abbado; Harmonia Mundi) or the more grievous, heartfelt lyricism of Arabella Steinbacher (Nelsons; Orfeo), to mention two sublime accounts of violinists of whom Mlle. Eberle is quickly becoming a peer. On the upside Mlle. Eberle soloist wasn’t afraid of un-pretty tones, but a greater daring and variety with hushed, nuanced, and lighter touches would have set well with my ears. If it weren’t for the precision in the execution on the part of soloist and orchestra, one would never have landed at minor interpretative quibbles – but that’s the curse of perfection: It can force a critique to find other cracks onto which it can latch.

At its best, the vast orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin performed a piece of chamber music for orchestra and violin, at other times the sound-world came surprisingly close to that of Carl Maria von Weber. Berg’s Violin Concerto looks back to romanticism, for sure, but that far? In the second movement the searing intensity of Veronika Eberle’s playing – with some super-vigorous left-right pizzicatos thrown into the mix – helped to some highlights. The mourning of the concerto became a mourning at the cusp of anger, with Beethovenian seething.

Desperate Dissonance, Slowly Twisted

Seething it the appropriate transition to Mahler’s Tenth: (See also: Mahler Survey, Symphony No.10) The symphony starts innocuous enough, in this case with a gorgeous sound from the superb viola section of the BRSO. Perhaps a bit on the slow side for continuous flow, the tempo felt exactly right as soon as the heaving violins joined. During the part where the Tenth Symphony still appreciably resembles other Mahler symphonies (most notably the Seventh, with which it shares several characteristics), there was surprisingly little lilt in

Page 1 / 2 Continue

Comment on this story

what Nézet-Séguin negotiated with the orchestra. Not much seediness, either, and in the swells and the grand gestures it sounded more like a Richard Strauss tone poem, at times. The orchestra played superbly again but for two early first-movement mini-climaxes. With few and minor exceptions, the orchestra continued on its path of perfection. And when the first desks were called upon for their considerable solo-duty – violin, cello, viola, and eventually flute – they outdid themselves.

Before long the opening Andante-Adagio hurtles itself downward towards darkness and anguish, of course, cumulating in two violent screams – those famous nine-chord notes of desperate dissonance. These chords were not so much punched out but carefully stacked and pulled on top of each other, chord by chord; assembled not with particular ferocity but then squeezed mercilessly! These chords gate are posts on the way to hell, and I imagine them built in black basalt with the ugliest gargoyles leering at the lone traveler, and extending severed, dripping heads as hints for what’s to come.

The rustic “Forward!” of the second movement seemed more naturally up Nézet-Séguin’s alley, in any case the orchestra hurled itself towards the Purgatorio middle movement with great élan while said middle movement was a flitter of silver shivers and light and evoked the from the Seventh Symphony. In the fourth movement, which felt like a chaos not quite unleashed in Nézet-Séguin’s controlling hands, there are plenty Viennese tones – folk and sardonic folk-like alike, not unlike the Scherzo of the Seventh – to which that night’s concert master Anton Barachovsky gave life.

Speaking of the Seventh Symphony again, with its imaginary birds of the night and crepuscular – but also strangely sunny – atmosphere, the most notable parallel between the two works is the structure. If the Seventh is built like a pyramid, with a small central movement on the top and solid blocks of opening movement and finale at the base, the Tenth feels like its inversion.

Rather than climbing up a mountain, what takes place is a descent to Hell (or ) and back. The gate posts that greet the listener on the way down are also there to reluctantly let the traveler pass on his way back. The gorgeous flute solo in that final fifth movement (“Slow, heavy”), so reminiscent of Gluck’s , offers another tempting analogy to this view. And, like the light-bursting finale of the Seventh, the night-thirsty finale of the Tenth is of a strangely episodic nature that Nézet-Séguin made no attempts at disguising. He does well with these contrasts and clashes of hope and death, delirium and lucidity, seriousness and flippancy. Perhaps this is because Nézet-Séguin seems to take Mahler at his word and doesn’t seem to question his intent until it fits what we think Mahler be saying. (Here as in the Seventh; see also: .)This musical earnestness is refreshing and it works best in the most difficult passages of Mahler to which the finale of the Tenth, despite its mesmerizing moments of sweeping glory and sunshine-after-the-ache, surely belongs. After the last note subsided and Nézet-Séguin had lowered his arms, there were a few seconds of genuine, exhausted, silence, still under the spell of this too rarely performed, not at all unfinished Mahler symphony.¶

Well, maybe one, all the way in the back of the first violins, but one is still a shockingly low a number and can in any case be handled.

Desperation, incidentally, also tends to inspire such – and even more – daring and original programming. That’s why good but desperate orchestras often are the best bet for the musically curious concert goer who wants more than just to experience a museum of sound.

Also the home town of composer Werner Egk, in case you appreciate random factoids.

This article was sourced from http://globalnewsrelease.com