Feature Review – Noise, Music and Enlightenment

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

Jonathan Nott and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra gave five concerts at the 2005 Edinburgh International Festival; Richard Whitehouse gives an overview of the week…

The announcement earlier this year of a ‘residency’ at the 2005 Edinburgh International Festival by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra came as no surprise. True, residencies as such have not featured in the Festival’s recent history (though back in 1951, the ‘New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra’ notched up a total of thirteen concerts, and the Berlin Philharmonic gave a further six), but the artistic and public acclaim greeting the Bamberg Symphony’s two concerts in 2003 was such as to make its return a virtual certainty. And the present five concerts, given over a six-day span, picked up where the orchestra’s Principal Conductor, Jonathan Nott, left off two years ago: a thoughtful and often pertinent dovetailing of music from the past two centuries, pointing up – never didactically – connections between composers and repertoire that shed new, often unexpected light on familiar pieces, and rendered more recent works from an equally illuminating perspective. Nott requires that listeners invest something of their own into the listening process – a commitment that UK audiences have become increasingly unused to, but one which the generally engaged and positive response of those in the Usher Hall happily confirmed as something which is by no means unrealistic.

The first concert was a thoughtfully provocative coupling that effectively served to frame the achievements of the 20th century. Nott’s Ligeti credentials are second to none and, with Christian Tetzlaff an equally noted interpreter, a memorable account of the Violin Concerto (1992) seemed assured. So it was, after a ‘Praeludium’ in which the soloist’s pitching was a little approximate and the scaled-down orchestra had had time to adjust to the Usher Hall acoustic. The ‘theme in search of itself’ constituting the ‘Aria, Hoquetus, Choral’ movement was precisely yet expressively rendered, and not a few of the audience seemed to get the point that what sounds out-of-tune here is that which is heard in just (i.e. – natural) intonation as opposed to that in equal (i.e. – manipulated) temperament. The ‘Intermezzo’ that follows had astonishing velocity, carried over into a smouldering ‘Passacaglia’ and a careering ‘Appassionato’. Tetzlaff is a violinist who responds to being kept ‘in check’ by the conductor: he was given his head in a coruscating account of the cadenza – derived by dedicatee Saschko Gawriloff from the original (and superior!) version of the first movement – before the mock-brutal orchestral pay-off was unleashed.

The full orchestra assembled for Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (1901) – a work central to the Bamberg Symphony’s inaugural Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition last year, and which it has successfully recorded with Nott for Tudor. Nott eschews a ‘Funeral March and commentary’ approach to the opening two movements: thus the former was given as a fantasy whose prevailing march profile is not exclusively funereal (though the heavy rhythmic emphasis on the main four-note motif did become a little too emphatic), and with an appealingly impulsive approach to the trio-cum-development. Ensemble was a mite ragged at times, but if this was the Bamberg Symphony adjusting to its new environment, it was up and running in a second movement which was driving yet never unduly hectic. The vehement despair evinced at the return of the second theme was superbly gauged, and Nott brought a potent stoicism to the coda.

Lithe and ingratiating, the scherzo generated a propulsive energy, Nott preparing for the trio with telling equivocation and shaping the latter section with affecting naturalness. Moreover, his handling of the movement from the ‘false’ coda gave the closing minutes a much-needed coherence – though the soloistic placement of the first horn in this movement, whatever precedent it can claim from Mahler, still sounds to be musically superfluous. At around ten minutes, the Adagietto was superbly weighted as to remain airborne throughout – while the finale generated an energy able to sustain the elaborate rondo structure through to the return of the chorale theme, which hit the ground running as surely as it triumphantly avoided bombast. Nott is unlikely to adopt so headlong a tempo for this movement again, but the frisson that resulted on this occasion more than justified the decision.

The following night brought a concert performance of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (1857) – hardly surprising from a conductor who has served at opera houses in Wiesbaden and Lucerne, and who conducted his first Ring cycle while still in his thirties. And there was little in the reading to disappoint: certainly not Christine Brewer’s Isolde, which exuded all of the tonal clarity and richness evident in her three-stage assumption of the role with Donald Runnicles and the BBC Symphony in London two years ago – and to which was now added a hushed intensity in climactic passages, the more affecting for its absence of self consciousness. Key moments such as the realisation of love after the imbibing of the magic potion near the end of Act One, and her arrival to witness the dying Tristan in Act Three, were seen through with a concentration on expressive essentials such as held those present wholly in its thrall.

Would that one could be as enthusiastic about Christian Franz’s Tristan. Allowance had to be made for the chest infection he was evidently (to judge from the array of pills and liquids in proximity of his chair) suffering from; even then, however, his powerful but unsubtle delivery and tendency to shout at the apex of phrases, made for some hard listening throughout much of the first two acts. Ironic, then, that his desperate effort to keep going in Act Three found its parallel in Tristan’s increasingly manic ravings – resulting in an assumption that, however hoarse in tone, was far from inappropriate. About Jane Irwin’s rich-toned and confiding Brangäne there can be few doubts – this was a portrayal that captured the role’s ‘strength in gentleness’ in full measure. John Relyea, too, was in his element as König Marke – exhibiting a burnished authority yet giving full reign to the tragic nobility that needs to be the role’s lasting impression. Juha Uusitalo was a forthright if occasionally hectoring Kurwenal, D’Arcy Bleiker a firm if marginally too controlled Melot, and there were dramatically telling cameos from Andrew Kennedy as the Shepherd and Young Sailor, and Jonathan Hawkins as a bluff Steersman.

Otherwise, this was Nott’s ‘Tristan’ in the way that he controlled the ebb and flow of each act with a Böhm-like regard for dramatic momentum, never eschewing the chamber-like delicacy and inwardness that marks out this Wagner score from all others. After a Prelude that avoided the twin pitfalls of impetuousness and lethargy, each act came in at around 70 minutes – making this among the faster accounts of the opera, but one with no sense of undue haste or straining for dramatic effect. And the rich and flexible Bamberg timbre was an absolute asset in all of this; brass cutting through the texture when required (at the end of Act One and the climax of Act Two), but more often absorbed into an overall ensemble that never threatened to overwhelm singers given the absence of a ‘pit’. A raptly inward ‘Liebestod’ capped this engrossing and memorable performance.

After a night off came a concert subtitled “A Programme of Variations”, summing up this evening of well-balanced contrasts, which included Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H (1855) precede Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra (1928). The former, among the most focussed from Liszt’s select output for organ, draws on the innate tonal instability of its underlying motif in music whose sonorous opulence and expansive gestures are shot through with a corresponding ambivalence – potently realised by Thomas Trotter, for all the vividness of the Usher Hall acoustic. This, despite the would-be affirmation of its coda, makes it an ideal foil to the Schoenberg – which itself seeks formal cohesion out of a volatility that was the twelve-note method of composing at this early stage in its evolution. Nott’s performance did the work full justice – whether in the measured anxiousness of the introduction, the cautious yet yielding nature of the theme, or in the pointed contrasts that mark out the nine variations – with the stark fifth and ingratiating seventh of the sequence being especial highlights. The finale was unusually successful in the scrupulous regard for its heightened changes of tempo, yet without compromising the surging momentum towards the deceptively blissful coda and decisive pay-off. Other performances may have made the work sound more alluring, but few have brought out its sheer rightness as an organic and riveting musical statement of intent.

The second half of the concert provided a less forceful but still revealing coupling. Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) is staple concert fare, its innovative and often unsettling qualities easy to overlook. Stephen Hough’s account was a curate’s egg in that the lean and incisive approach by which he has enlivened such war-horses as the Second and Third Concertos is essentially part of the music here. There were felicities aplenty – above all in the sequence of Variations XI-XVIII (the ‘slow movement’ of what is effectively a three-movement work), and capped by an unaffected account of the evergreen ‘eighteenth’ – but also a detachment that left a sense of inconsequentiality overall. Nott’s accompaniment was unstintingly fine (would that Hough had enjoyed such support on his recorded cycle of the concertos), such as left one (unexpectedly?) prepared for the closing item. How to rejuvenate Ravel’s Boléro (1928)? By respecting its unbroken dynamic curve and judicious timbral contrasts, whereby the melody and its accompaniment collude in a remorseless momentum – which is exactly what Nott and the Bamberg Symphony did in a performance which generated an irresistible élan, abetted by placing the principal side drum towards the front of the platform. And the fateful modulation near the close was spot-on – the audience catching its collective breath at the composer’s audacity: exactly what should occur in all the finest sets of variations.

Friday might reasonably have been called ‘a concert of death and its aftermath’, though perhaps the organisers thought better of such a designation. A finely ordered programme was made more so by running the first half as a continuous sequence; during which the audience was requested to refrain from applause, and duly desisted (would that Nott could achieve something similar at the Proms!).

Not that the procedure would have made its point had not the actual pieces formed so potent a unity. A product of his short-lived association with the ‘Fluxus’ movement in the performing arts, Ligeti’s Poème symphonique (1962) often appears as a jeu d’esprit to round off a concert of his music; here, with 100 metronomes aligned in five spot-lit groups at the front of the platform and activated ten minutes before the scheduled start of the concert, it opened proceedings with a graphic evocation of time passing such as only the regularised uneventfulness of a mechanical process can provide. Having listened attentively if tensely to a further eight minutes of interlocking ostinatos, audience relaxation was palpable when the strains of Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement of Bach’s Komm süsser Tod (1736) sounded forth. One of the conductor’s most affecting Bach transcriptions, it was played with tender restraint. And if Alice Coote, seated some fifteen minutes before her contribution, found the wait off-putting, it was hardly noticeable in an account of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (1904) that brought out the tonal range and richness of her already unmistakable mezzo voice; here delving into the fatalism of Rückert’s verse with evident pathos – and with Nott (rightly) intent on bringing out the inward immediacy of this vocal chamber music.

After the interval, the ‘other’ side of Ligeti was encountered in a performance of Lontano (1967) – a modern classic bar none, which draws on the textural density of his earlier works to generate an engulfing harmonic continuum, evolving via constantly-changing polyphonic detail. The intensity of the onward flow was powerfully realised in a reading that made the most of its many timbral contrasts and dynamic shadings, conveyed with an acuity that confirmed the Bamberg orchestra as quite the equal of the Berlin Philharmonic in this music. A pity, perhaps, that its final evanescence did not lead directly into the halting pulsation which opens Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung (1889). As it was, this powerful and finely-executed performance was a further reminder of Nott’s prowess in this composer; the fraught earlier stages given their emotive head and, most importantly, the quirky but effective transitions made to work in context so that the apotheosis wholly avoided grandiloquence while lacking nothing in affirmation. In doing so, it set the seal on a concert such as one might wish to encounter every week of the season: for this reviewer at least, the pick of the Bamberg residency.

A week such as this could hardly have ended with a conventional ‘finale’, and Nott put together a true musical marathon to round off proceedings. Effectively juxtaposing German Romanticism past and present, it opened with a surprisingly rare outing for Schubert’s First Symphony (1813) – the sixteen-year-old’s awkward but appealing symphonic debut, in an account which kept the earnest rhetoric of the first movement firmly in hand, while unobtrusively underlining the very personal reassessment of Haydn and Mozart that informs the whole. Nott gave us the essence of a work neatly poised on the cusp between the Classical and Romantic epochs.

The pieces either side of the first interval provided a showcase for Jörg Widmann as performer and composer. In the former capacity, he proved a tasteful and unfailingly sensitive soloist in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto (1791) – a little too reticent in characterisation across the deceptively uneventful opening movement, but with an attractively ruminative feel to the Adagio (happily not over-burdened with pathos) and a gentle playfulness in the finale. Latter-day accounts on the basset clarinet have opened up a new expressive dimension in this work, but Widmann’s outwardly conventional approach – with Nott and the orchestra ever-dependable in support – was in itself never less than pleasurable.

Widmann the composer understandably proved more provocative. A Bamberg commission, Lied (2003) takes as its starting-point the melodic genius of Schubert for a half-hour exploration of how melodic lines can motivate what, in essence, is a ‘Mahlerian symphonic adagio’ with its antecedents in Krenek, Hartmann, Henze and – most pertinently – Wolfgang Rihm. The large forces are used with no mean resource – often as subtly deployed chamber groupings, across which the music’s melodic essence is often inferred rather than stated. A respectful response seemed aimed more at the finesse of the players than the piece – on the basis of which, Widmann is certainly a composer worth encountering.

Interestingly, audience restlessness increased markedly during the account of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony (1823) that ensued. Perhaps the strain of an already ninety-minute concert was beginning to tell; yet Nott’s approach, while never other than personal, might have been an additional factor. The first movement was too often ponderous rather than portentous or ominous – an overlay of ‘old school’ grandeur sitting uncomfortably on what, in its clarity, was otherwise a performance wholly of the present. The Andante was more convincing, though Nott’s pointing up of dynamic extremes too often gave the music a fraught quality such as even the beatific coda could not adequately resolve.

That restive audience response was transformed throughout the hour-long span of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony (1896). Nott’s interpretation was a fine one: imposing audible continuity on what can often seem to be formal and expressive lacunae in the first movement, imparting grinding ruthlessness to the scherzo (though the capricious trio section was a little deadpan), and bringing a fatalistic majesty to the Adagio such as drew its antagonistic themes into an indissoluble whole. The expanded Bamberg forces (Wagner tubas superbly blended into the ensemble) evinced not a trace of fatigue: suggesting that for them, like us, Nott’s invigorating extravaganza was a gamble that had manifestly paid off.

So, a finely-planned and, taken overall, superbly realised week of music-making that amply built on the success of the Bamberg Symphony’s previous visit and fully justified the Edinburgh Festival’s Artistic Director Brian MacMaster in his conviction that a week-long residency would justify itself artistically and commercially. Attendance levels were pretty consistent throughout the week – lower for the third and fourth concerts, but capacity for ‘Tristan’ and the final concert – gratifyingly so for the latter, when only a handful of the audience were unable to stay the course. It would be good to think that, for those who came to all or the majority of the performances, that most got the point of the premise which Nott was seeking to drive home: that the orchestral repertoire does not exist, has never existed and – most importantly – can never exist in a cultural vacuum, such as reduces music from the more distant past to a passive lifestyle accessory, and which leaves that from the relative present adrift in needless miscomprehension and ignorance.

Whatever he goes on to achieve, Jonathan Nott here re-affirmed a vital guiding rule for the future of orchestral performance – for which he and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra deserve our thanks.

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