Debussy orch. Colin Matthews
Three Preludes Szymanowski
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40
Timothy Robinson (tenor)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle
CBSO/Rattle 19 October
Saturday, October 19, 2002 Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Fresh from his brief European tour at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle returned to Birmingham for the first of two concerts featuring works to be recorded for a fourth Szymanowski disc.
Although conceived in 1923, when still at work on the opera King Roger, the ballet-pantomime Harnasie was not completed for a further eight years. It thus spans almost the entirety of the composers final phase of composition, in which the folk music of the Tatra mountain region became absorbed into his music in ever more unexpected ways.
The scenario, concerning the exploits of a posse of bandits and their arrival not at all unwelcome in some quarters! at a wedding ceremony, is portrayed in broad brush strokes over three scenes. A solo tenor here the virile-sounding Timothy Robinson, emerging at various points on the platform provides a focus at the beginning and end; otherwise the chorus adds its lusty contribution as the highland people to an orchestration opulent even by Szymanowskis standards. Not that such density was a problem given the clarity and spaciousness of Symphony Hall, allowing a greater immersion in some of the composers headiest and most life-affirming writing than previously possible.
Given his credentials in such ballet precursors as The Rite of Spring and The Miraculous Mandarin, its no surprise that Rattle should have wanted to take on Harnasie scenes from an idealised rural existence that had largely ceased to be at the time Szymanowski came to it. Perhaps this explains the poignancy of the brief final scene in which Harnas sings of his love for the girl he has abducted, and the gaudily-clad textures are fined down to an evocation of imagined and absolute contentment. A thoughtful postlude to a performance which, interpretatively-speaking, carried all before it.
Opening the concert were three of Debussys piano preludes in translucent orchestrations by Colin Matthews. If Ce qua vu le vent dOuest and Feux dartifice lose some of their scintillating intensity when projected on a larger aural canvas, Feuilles mortes takes on a succession of autumnal hues entirely apt in context.
And to close the concert, Strausss Ein Heldenleben. Demonstrably, even pointedly, Stravinskian in articulation during the Hero and Battle portions, this was an account that played down the musics egoist certainties in favour of its humanist aspirations. The Critics were despatched with venomous bite, and leader Peter Thomas characterised the Companion with unpredictability and allure that led naturally into the archetypal Straussian love-scene. Interpretatively, the final two sections yield the greatest rewards. Rattle sustained the web of self-quotations with which Strauss suffuses the Works with calm intensity, and brought a strikingly Schoenbergian angst to the music presaging the Retreat the Hero finding fulfilment in one of the composers most expressive leave-takings. The clinching recall of the main motif left no false sense of triumph in its wake only a benediction.