Symphony No.29 in A, K201
Des Knaben Wunderhorn [selections – Das irdische Leben; Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt; Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen; Lob des hohen Verstandes]
Mussorgsky, orch. Shostakovich
Songs and Dances of Death
Gerald Finley (bass-baritone)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 3 October, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The BBC Symphony Orchestra opened its season – which will include Jiří Bělohlávek conducting all six of Bohuslav Martinů’s symphonies – with a one-dimensional Mozart 29, any disappointment then wiped away by Gerald Finley, quite outstanding in Mahler and Mussorgsky.
Rarely has this particular Mozart symphony seemed so ebullient, but there was little grace and elegance as Bělohlávek harried the first movement along, disregarding so many expressive opportunities, the playing, especially in the strings, not the last word on good ensemble or unanimity, a blight that would return in the Minuet, given with rigour if little else. The slow movement was quite lovingly turned, but we never quite reached the Elysian Fields, and only the finale fully responded to the conductor’s virile approach.
The rest of the concert was where rehearsal time had been lavishly spent; the first selection from the Mahler was immediate evidence, precise and detailed playing, absolutely at-one with Gerald Finley, the singer in commanding and communicative form, savouring every word, and as sublimely beautiful, evocative and witty as you could want, the melange of winds (Angela Whelan a distinguished guest principal trumpet) acting as notable confreres in ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ when, come the final words, a distant battle is about to be fought (but timpani were too-audibly hand-damped, almost second notes, in ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’, and would be as-noticeable in the Martinů).
After the interval, Finley – a Gramophone Award-winner the day before – also illuminated Mussorgsky’s “Songs and Dances of Death” to compelling (and linguistically masterly) effect, Shostakovich’s 1962 orchestration as revealing of himself as it is complementary to Mussorgsky (music that is forward-looking, breaks the rules, yet also belongs to his contemporaries Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky). Arguably, these settings needs a ‘blacker’ voice than Finley possesses (both for the music and for the Russian language), but time and again – as in the Mahler – his unaffected (smooth but never bland) phrasing and his ability to be vivid while remaining intrinsic caught unerringly the music’s pathos, torment, eerie enchantment and raging, the sardonic dance measures (orchestra) and declamation (voice) of the last song a perfect encapsulation of the insights and devotion of the whole performance.
Nevertheless, it was Martinů who stole the show. Fifty years dead this year, this Czech-born (1890) if nomadic artist remains too-peripheral a composer to the general repertoire. He took many years to write his first symphony (partly because he had a “lifelong horror of all forms of pretension and pomposity”). Already through his 50th-birthday, it was in 1942 that Martinů (now in the States, having been in Paris) received a commission for a symphony from Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He composed the four-movement, 40-minute Symphony No.1 quickly, and the symphonic floodgates were then opened: there would be five further symphonies in rapid succession, culminating in 1953 with Fantaisies symphoniques (a full-circle return to Boston, now with Charles Munch).
Put simply, the First Symphony is a terrific piece (not quite a masterpiece, the finale is maybe too long and too discursive), but it is loveable, kaleidoscopic and deeply-felt, the clusters of colours launching the first movement resembling the blossoming of an exotic flower, the music pulsating with life (and inner tension) as well as being tenderly nostalgic and heartfelt, something of a prelude, fantasy and symphonic logic in symbiosis, followed by a gawky, flamboyant scherzo, Martinů’s rhythmic mechanisms in full flow. At the core of the symphony is the third-movement Largo, given an appropriately expansive pace by Bělohlávek, its soul-stirring depths rising to troubled heights. It’s no doubt coincidence (or simply through breathing the same American air) that occasionally the ear detects a touch of Roy Harris in ground he had already travelled (his Third Symphony of course), but in the finale, Martinů seems to anticipate the Aaron Copland of The Red Pony (1948). But these are incidental details, for one could also cite the orchestral virtuosity of William Walton (and all these named composers are from the same milieu), so that the spiky, sometimes playful finale, with an eloquent chorale that seems a little out of place structurally (but you couldn’t do without it emotionally), all lead to a wholly personal exhilarating and joyous coda.
It would be difficult to imagine a performance that could be more faithfully and perceptively conducted than this one or more responsively played; this BBCSO/Bělohlávek Martinů symphony-cycle promises to be something really special.
- Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 5 October at 7 p.m. (and available on BBC iPlayer for seven days following the broadcast)
- BBC Radio 3
- Martinů Symphony No.2 performed on Friday 9 October in Barbican Hall, with music by Mahler and Richard Strauss, from 7 p.m.
- Gerald Finley Gramophone Award Winner