Bamberg Symphony Alpine Symphony

Im Sommerwind
Violin Concerto No.3 in G, K216
Eine Alpensymphonie, Op.64

Renaud Capuçon (violin)

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
Jonathan Nott

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 May, 2006
Venue: Sinfonie an der Regnitz, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Bamberg

The historic but far from antiquated town of Bamberg (long a part of Bavaria, though the medieval ambience of its Franconian cultural heyday is often apparent) might seem an unlikely setting for an orchestra of international standing, but the Bamberg Symphony has often enjoyed such status since Joseph Keilberth guided it through the difficult post-war period – and, in more recent years, through collaboration with such conductors as Horst Stein, Ingo Metzmacher (a Guest position) and, since 2000, Jonathan Nott. His appointment as Chief Conductor came seven years after the opening of Sinfonie an der Regnitz on the bank of the Regnitz river, and the Joseph-Keilberth-Saal’s warmth and clarity (if just a little airless on warm Spring evenings!) has made a positive contribution to its performances ever since.

This concert was the last ‘home event’ in a season which began with the orchestra undertaking a high-profile and acclaimed residency at last year’s Edinburgh International Festival, and which will conclude with a Japanese tour and also several international appearances – including one at the Proms in July.

The programme framed a classical violin concerto with late-Romantic pieces by composers working within very different stylistic orbits. Certainly it would be difficult to identify Webern as the creator of the idyll Im Sommerwind (1904) without prior knowledge, and yet the 20-year-old composer’s first major statement has an expressive reach that more than compensates for any formal quirkiness.

Inspired by an extended poem by philosopher Bruno Wille, Im Sommerwind veers between rapt contemplation of the numinous and animated stirrings of the natural world within a broadly cumulative structure that recalls the tone poems of Richard Strauss – and with an unlikely resemblance to the music of Scriabin and Delius to make it decidedly a work of its time. Nott treated it with affection but no indulgence – never disguising the formal seams that Webern himself pointed out to his students in later years (the piece remained unperformed until 1962), while securing delicate playing from strings and piquant contributions from solo woodwinds. The course of the composer’s development meant it was impossible for him to attempt such a work again, which only makes its existence the more valuable.

Although written when he was two years younger than Webern, Mozart’s G major Violin Concerto (1775) is both more assured as a composition and prescient of his stylistic maturity. This is music that calls for a light but never superficial touch, and Renaud Capuçon was as responsive to the deft interplay of the outer movements as he was the gentle pathos of the Adagio – with the chromatic unease of its central section thoughtfully realised. Intonation wavered on occasion, but not so as to undermine his purity of line or incisiveness of passagework. Capuçon’s cadenzas for the first two movements both integrated themselves effortlessly, while he and Nott made the most of the finale’s engaging dance-like episode – a formal aside that Mozart was to enrich in several of his later piano concertos.

After the interval, Strauss’s Eine Alpensymphonie (1915) – whose performance at the 1993 Edinburgh Festival gave notice as to the strength of the Bamberg/Nott partnership. Those qualities of organic cohesion and a truly symphonic momentum – necessary if the work is to be more than an exercise in scenic evocation – that made for so memorable a reading then were equally evident here, allied to a willingness to push the expressive ‘envelope’ even further so as to capture the birth-to-death totality that the composer derived from his experience of a mountain-climbing expedition made many years before.

Thus the contrast between those dynamic extremes of night and sunrise was even more pronounced, the characterisation of incident on the ascent even more acute (additional offstage horns would have pointed up the antiphonal exchanges, but 12 horns was no hardship in context), and the contrapuntal density of those sections depicting the upper reaches even more clearly delineated. Neither did the summit sequence lack anything in sheer grandeur, nor the thunderstorm episode – prepared for with palpable concentration – make other than a visceral impact.

Yet all of these are but relative highpoints when compared with the true apotheosis that is provided by the ‘Ausklang’ episode: a distillation of the work’s entire emotional range into a longing for transcendence – something that can be sensed but never attained as night descends once more and the music turns immutably and resignedly full circle.

It was in conveying the fullness and immediacy, as also the completeness of such thinking that made this a performance to savour – one that illumined the expressive complexity of the score as surely as it did its orchestral brilliance. Hopefully it will soon find its way onto disc (with Tod und Verklärung the ideal coupling), to join a growing Bamberg discography for the Tudor label.

It was good news earlier this year when Nott extended his contract for a further four seasons – as, even though orchestras in Britain and America are now catching on to his abilities across a wide repertoire, this is a partnership still very much ‘on the up’. The warmth of the reception confirmed that Bambergers are well aware of this too.

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