BBCSO New Season

Tristan und Isolde – Prelude
Erwartung, Op.17
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Susan Bullock (soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 14 October, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

David Robertson’s first concert as Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony also opened the Orchestra’s 2005-06 season. It was a shrewdly chosen programme of German music, one juxtaposing influential if opposing routes, those of Wagner and Schoenberg, and completing the circle with a symphony whose darkness-to-light trajectory is as relevant now as it ever has been.

The concert began with the Prelude to Act One of ‘Tristan’. With Susan Bullock on the platform already, and Robertson eschewing the ‘concert ending’ and playing the low-string pizzicatos that herald the ‘Liebestod’, maybe there was to be an unadvertised rendition of the latter; but, no, just at the point the ‘Liebestod’ begins, Schoenberg’s ‘monodrama’ “Erwartung” was introduced, seamlessly. It worked well, and in a performance as lucid as this, Schoenberg’s writing didn’t seem that far away from Wagner’s own forward-looking thinking.

That said, there were reservations about the performance of the Wagner. The opening measures sounded a little nervous, although the whole was beautifully played, and without being self-conscious. Robertson’s tempo was flowing, and convincingly so, yet the music was rarely lit from within, and this lack of translucence was especially noticeable in the climax, which the winds and brass dominated and which were forced onto the texture rather than emerging from it.

Having dealt a strong hand with the attacca, Robertson’s account of “Erwartung” was especially impressive, one that revealed every detail fastidiously without compromising the music’s drama and emotion. Allowing that the text was provided, but also allowing this is a stage-work played out in a forest at night, maybe the auditorium (if not the platform) could have been darkened to add atmosphere. As it was, even with Susan Bullock slightly ‘outside’ of the character of the agitated, unnamed ‘Woman’, although giving a laudably accurate and unforced exposé (even at the moments of greatest tension), this was an account that made “Erwartung” live and breath and abound with delicacy and beautifully judged and coloured orchestration, as well as rebarbative outbursts. Perhaps, ultimately, there was a lack of ‘fear’ suggested; perhaps, too, the musicians’ comprehensive understanding of Schoenberg’s once-notorious notation reduced its ‘shock value’, even if Schoenberg himself wasn’t trying to startle, but rather reinvent and continue ‘tradition’; his place in that long line was never doubted here.

However, the most intriguing performance was the Beethoven. Swift in an ‘authentic’ sense but not inflexible and with plenty of room for meaningful expression, if less ‘authentic’ given the full complement of strings, with vibrato, but with Beethoven’s as-scored pairs of woodwinds (rather than the ‘traditional’ doubling); the winds though sometimes lost out in the balance; indeed it was string-heavy at times, and the second violins really should have been placed antiphonally to the firsts.

As lithe and incisive as the symphony was made – and Robertson’s conducting was demonstrably vivid, albeit without jeopardising his excellent technique – there was a lightness at times that would have been just about ideal for the concurrently-written and graceful Fourth Symphony. Yet, Robertson saw the symphony whole, and throughout the first two movements there was always the suggestion that something had to give, that ‘change’ was in the air. As the second movement concluded, almost clawing its way to resolution, it seemed inevitable that the scherzo would emerge directly from it; as it did, indivisibly, played through once (Robertson eschewing scholarly opinion that Beethoven intended a repetition) and as something of an intermezzo: swift and airy. With the finale (repeat taken), helped by trombones and contrabassoon swelling the textures, came a ‘bursting free’ and a more majestic sense of tempo; and, of course, the scherzo (given somewhat short shrift by Robertson, it could be argued) does make a brief reappearance before being swept aside by the ‘no looking back’ final measures. The piccolo could have been less ‘pretty’, though.

A triumphant performance, in many ways, not least for sealing the orchestra and conductor’s partnership – at the end, Robertson walked through the various sections shaking hands – one that compelled, asked questions, but didn’t always supply the answers. Unlike some conductors (Rattle and Gatti come to mind) who like to, but don’t necessarily succeed, at mixing different worlds of Beethoven performance, Robertson has a transparent and buoyant approach that is both integrated and thought-provoking.

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