Don Giovanni – Overture
Gillian Keith (soprano)
Royal Albert Hall, London
Monday, July 30, 2012
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The BBC Philharmonic was back for its second Prom, this time with former Principal Conductor, now Laureate, Gianandrea Noseda – both were on the typically high-energy form that distinguishes their partnership. The programme was imaginatively themed: Mozart’s vision of Hell leading into uneasy comedy in the Overture to Don Giovanni; the dark night of the soul in Oliver Knussen’s Second Symphony; and that behemoth of irreconcilable contrasts in Mahler’s Seventh, another dark night, one of almost lurid high drama, not quite laid to rest by the superficially ebullient finale.
The Mozart presented Noseda’s credentials with admirable, theatrical flair, reacquainting us with his superb feeling for a layered clarity that revealed the opening’s queasy rhythmic disjunction. Its penetrating darkness never quite released its hold on the main allegro, giocoso enough, but its brightness was a bit too assertive, neatly summing up the opera’s nervy black comedy, played here with focussed brilliance and elegant phrasing.
Knussen’s Symphony No.2 (in effect his first, since the composer withdrew No.1) has a similar, almost freakish assurance as Shostakovich’s First, although the content is very different. You wonder how Knussen, still a teenager when he finished this symphony in 1971, could have had such insight into his chosen texts, especially the anguish of Sylvia Plath’s poem Edge, except that there is a sort of fearless directness that comes with youth. The haiku-like poems of the two Georg Trakl poems, with their moon imagery and Knussen’s alert musical response, evoke Pierrot Lunaire, but Knussen’s darkness flirts with emptiness at a far remove from Schoenberg’s extreme expressionism. Its brevity (about 17 minutes) belies the density of its content, while Gillian Keith effortlessly floated her eerily disembodied high soprano, a detached ‘white’ sound that suited the dispassionate bleakness of the poems perfectly. The much reduced BBC Philharmonic worked wonders with Knussen’s finely crafted, fluid orchestration.
Noseda has a strong affinity with Mahler’s Seventh, despite its high standing with Mahlerians, still the least performed of the symphonies. Conductors sometimes think its massive contrasts need special pleading – often expressed in extremes of tempo – but Noseda positively relished its differences, and brought it in at a median 80 minutes. He ran the three middle movements with minimum breaks, which had the effect (apart from stifling applause) of diverting attention away from the disruptive, unstable potential of the two ‘Nachtmusik’ movements and the central shadowy scherzo and onto the riotous, extrovert finale.
This approach did nothing to resolve the symphony’s ‘difficult’ reputation, but the power of the performance was extraordinarily consistent. The Seventh is very much a conductor’s showcase, and the dynamic Noseda was in complete control of its vast narrative, its event-vaster orchestration and knife-edge changes of mood. The BBC Philharmonic fielded all the challenges Mahler gives them with gripping virtuosity – a wonderful opening for tenor horn, with an extra-musical element of sheer animal power, and thrilling deployment of Mahler’s special effects with cowbells, guitar and mandolin.
But ... I have yet to be moved by this symphony, in the way I am by all the others. I’m too aware of Mahler rolling out his repertoire of funeral marches, distant sunlit Alpine uplands, fanfares, ‘spoiled’ waltzes and the like. Yet this performance was compelling in terms of concentration, colour and drama – and there are many ways of being thrilled.