Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16
Four Last Songs
Kuolema – Scene with Cranes, Op.44/2
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63

Christine Brewer (soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 1 November, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

An intriguing opposition was promised by this concert’s combining of major works by Schoenberg, Strauss and Sibelius. In the event, questions of which or – more importantly – what is fundamental were thrown into relief by the nature of the pieces, and their context within each composer’s output.

Even by the radical standards of ’atonal’-period Schoenberg, the Five Orchestral Pieces (1909) are uncompromising in their formal and expressive syntax – and, even when heard (as tonight) in their reduced orchestration, still pack a fair punch. Undaunted by the music’s interpretative demands, Jukka-Pekka Saraste captured the spiralling menace of Premonitions and the rapier aggression of Peripeteia. Textural balance in The Past brought out its reflective anxiety, but Chord-colours lacked continuity of dynamics – without which the shifting planes of sound failed to coalesce. Most impressive was control of formal momentum in The Obbligato Recitative – the most difficult of the five to bring off in performance, emerging here with gripping clarity and emotional fervour.

The 40-year gap between this and the Four Last Songs could almost be ’before’ rather than ’after’, such is the late-Romantic aesthetic in which Strauss’s swansong is steeped. Ever-wider dissemination over the past quarter-century has led to increasingly sluggish tempi and expressive overload, so all credit to Saraste for keeping textures pliant and supple, admirably complementing Christine Brewer’s direct but subtly shaded singing. As her Edinburgh Festival account of Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder proved, Brewer (here replacing Karita Mattila) has few rivals in Romantic song at present – and the calmly unfolding resignation of September (arguably the finest of the cycle) and enveloping serenity of Im Abendrot conveyed pathos without the sentimentality often laminated onto present-day performances.

Death also pervades the two Sibelius works heard in the second half. Explicitly in the case of his music for Arvid Järnefelt’s play Kuolema (Death), from whence derives the intensely atmospheric miniature Scene with Cranes (1906). Implicitly, however, in the case of the Fourth Symphony (1911): ostensibly Sibelius’s response to the throat cancer that could have proved fatal around 1909, but more significantly his riposte to the perceived decadence of much contemporary music. Convenient as it might have been had the symphony been a direct critique to Schoenberg’s Op.16, which remained unplayed until 1912, the most obvious target is Richard Strauss – whose Salome had taken European opera houses by storm over the preceding five years.

Not that Sibelius’s response is at all regressive. For all the orchestral economy throughout much of the symphony, its elliptical tonal trajectory – enhanced on this occasion by Saraste’s having a lengthy pause only between the second and third movements – places severer demands on the listener’s powers of concentration than any number of aural images could have done. Saraste had the measure of the opening movement’s tensile expression, and barely relaxed going into the fierce animation of the scherzo – its brief trio made balletic and extended coda bitingly intense. Proceeding as a sequence of thematic fragments, which only gradually coalesce, the Largo distils a stark intensity ’relieved’ by Sibelius’s most audacious tonal juxtaposition at the outset of the finale. Saraste hardly put a foot wrong until the build-up to the Allegro’s fateful coda – when a degree too much expressive moulding robbed the music of cumulative impact as it teeters on collapse.

Few, if any, symphonies end with such unequivocal finality: if Saraste ’hit the wall’ at all prematurely, this was still a gripping account of a work which has only belatedly come into its own: not so much a refutation of Modernism, as a defiant rethinking of Classical precepts. Sibelius and Schoenberg might have been surprised that the mutually exclusive positions they seemed to adopt were opposite sides of the same coin – one where musical growth is generated by the inherent power of sound itself. Good that we were able to hear both composers in such productive juxtaposition on this occasion.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 3 November at 7.30

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