The Merry Wives of Windsor – Overture
Suor Angelica – Intermezzo
James Ehnes (viola)
Miriam Allan (soprano) & Ladies of the CBSO Chorus
Reviewed by: Tim Ashley
Reviewed: 26 February, 2011
Venue: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Performances of Liszt’s Dante Symphony are as important as they are rare,which made its appearance as the centrepiece of Gianandrea Noseda andthe BBC Philharmonic’s Liszt bicentenary celebrations a remarkableoccurrence in itself. The work has never lacked its champions –Noseda’s predecessors include Beecham, Masur, Barenboim and Sinopoli –and though it has always fared well in recordings, its absence from theconcert hall has been persistent. Apart from a previous BBCPhilharmonic performance with Noseda in Sheffield, this was, to my knowledge, our first opportunity to hear it live in the last umpteen decades.
The symphony is still saddled in some quarters with a reputation forbeing broken-backed, a product of the much-repeated tale that Wagnerdetrimentally affected the score’s progress by persuading Liszt tosuppress the originally planned third movement, based on the’Paradiso’, and replace it with the choral ‘Magnificat; with which thefinished symphony concludes. The tale’s accuracy has of late been muchdisputed, and many would now argue that the ‘Magnificat’ in itself isboth an adequate intimation of Paradise after the contrasting toils ofboth ‘Inferno’ and ‘Paradiso’, and an acknowledgement on Liszt’s partof the Marian theology that pervades Dante’s “Divina Commedia”.
The work is also informed, I think, by Liszt’s circumstancesat the time of composition. He and his mistress Carolyne vonSayn-Wittgenstein were in the process of petitioning both the Pope andthe Tsar for an annulment of hermarriage so that they might marry in their turn. (As a Pole, Carolynewas a Russian citizen and only the Tsar could grant permission fordivorce.) Their ongoing struggle, combined with Carolyne’s socialostracism away from the progressive circles in which the couplelargely moved, resulted in moments of both deep despair as well asgreat hope. The symphony’s ‘Inferno’ notably contrasts a depiction ofthe transgressive affair between Francesca da Rimini and PaoloMalatesta with the surrounding torments of hell, which Dante definesas a state in which all hope is abandoned. (The movement also formsthe model for both Tchaikovsky’s and Rachmaninov’s depiction of thesame events.) The ‘Purgatorio’, meanwhile, marks a gradual return toGod’s presence, acceptance and ultimate forgiveness after the sonicnightmare that precedes it.
The experimental nature of Liszt’s orchestral works, meanwhile,strikes deep chords with Noseda, who has always been something of arestless iconoclast, at home with – and admirably capable ofsustaining – music that inhabits expressive and emotional extremes.And in this instance, there was no mistaking either the ferocity ofhis commitment or his interpretative force. No amount of familiaritywith the work in a recording quite prepares you for it in the concert hall.The initial brass motto, which reproduces the rhythm of Dante’s verseas he contemplates the inscription over hell’s gates, is among themost jolting openings in the entire symphonic repertoire. Thereafterthe sheer sonic weight of much of the opening first pins you to your seat, subjecting the listener to a remarkable sense of relentlessphysical pressure. No-one hearing it could argue that Liszt was aninferior orchestrator, as is sometimes stated.
As so often with Noseda, we were also aware of a constant process ofre-thinking and re-evaluating the score as the performance progressed.Again drawing comparisons from recordings, his choice of tempos varied fromthe norm, with the ‘Inferno’ fractionally slower and the ‘Purgatorio’marginally faster than we find elsewhere, which if anything heightenedthe inexorability of the descent into hell, but added touches ofoptimism and lightness to the journey through purgatory towards God.
The Francesca episode, prefaced by soaring harp glissandi andambiguous, slightly manipulative solos on bass clarinet and coranglais, was at once tremulously erotic and disturbingly naïve, whichmade the subsequent sonic fury even more terrifying. The emotionalclimax of the performance, however, came later, as the remarkablefugue that describes the process of purgation twisted from minor tomajor at its apex, an extraordinary moment of spiritual and emotionalrelease, followed by the sound of the ‘Magnificat’ drifting down fromthe gallery over the shimmering strings.
The demands on the players are considerable, meanwhile. Liszt, unsurprisingly, treats the orchestra as a virtuoso entity thatpossesses vast reserves of stamina and great powers of both technicaldexterity and expressive subtlety, and the BBC Philharmonic, at itsabsolute best, rose to every challenge with tireless passion. Thechoral singing was exquisite, with the brief, hugely ungrateful solofinely done by Miriam Allan. This was one of Noseda’s greatachievements, and anyone who heard it won’t forget it in a hurry.
The rest of the concert, however, was equally resplendent. Nosedakicked things off with the ‘Overture’ to Otto Nicolai’s “The Merry Wives ofWindsor”, done wilder than usual, the genuine magic of the openingphrases giving way to touches of malice as well as broad comedy as theMerry Wives taunt Falstaff. As on previous occasions this season, Noseda inserted an extra piece into the programme at the last minute, in this instance the ‘Intermezzo’ from Puccini’s “Suor Angelica”. “Shemakes the same journey in five minutes that Liszt makes in forty”, Noseda remarked briefly explaining the story. I’m not quite sure shedoes, but the piece’s sad sweetness made a nice prelude to theSymphony which followed immediately after.
Bartók’s Viola Concerto, in Tibor Serly’s completion camebefore the interval – a vehicle for James Ehnes, who proved asdexterous with a viola as with his more familiar violin. I’ve neverbeen fully convinced by the opening movement, which strikes me asmeandering, though Ehnes played it with great lyrical beauty. TheAdagio religioso, however, was done with dark intensity while thefinale had plenty of zest and charm. Noseda, who has emerged as a fineBartókian of late, conducted with spiky brilliance andterrific rhythmic flair.