BBCSO/Walter Weller – 12 April

Schubert
Symphony No.8 in B minor (Unfinished)
Brahms
Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45

Sally Matthews (soprano)
Christopher Maltman (baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Walter Weller


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 12 April, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Walter Weller’s conducting career to date (following a spell in the ’sixties leading the Vienna Philharmonic and his eponymous string quartet) has included a significant UK presence with appointments in London (Royal Philharmonic), Liverpool and Scotland (Scottish National). That his appearances here in recent years have been few seems to be our loss on the evidence of this concert. This view isn’t entirely surmised, for Weller replaced Donald Runnicles just over a year ago for an impressive BBCSO concert of Berg and Bruckner 9. Now that they have met again, hopefully Weller will be returning regularly – without wishing to typecast him, his Viennese-bred interpretations of the classic Austro-German repertoire could be a breath of fresh air, not least in Beethoven who seems to be losing out to editorial research and ’designer’ performances, whether symbiotic or hard-core ’authentic’.

This particular BBCSO concert proved the old adage that if you give the public what they want (know) then they’ll come in droves. A former BBC Controller of Music, the late William Glock, wanted to play music that the public would need tomorrow. That’s what the BBCSO does, as it has been doing during this very attractive season. This thoughtfully arranged programme – the most famous example of incomplete Schubert (albeit accepted in its two-movement existence) and Brahms’s magnificent setting of Lutheran texts, inspired by the deaths of Schumann and Brahms’s mother, and here memorialising Schubert’s short life – might have stood out as a loner yet proved a highlight.

Occasional lack of attention from horns and trombones in the Schubert aside, Walter Weller’s broad and imposing ’Unfinished’ was stimulating. One could say this was a Karl Böhm type of performance (and no doubt Weller played under Böhm on numerous occasions). This classifies Weller’s precedents without acknowledging his own insights. The string playing, sweet-toned and very expressive, innately bore Schubert’s speculation, loneliness and ultimate climb to ethereal vistas; especially telling was the eerie bass tremolos at the start of the development (Weller’s spacious concept of the first movement didn’t preclude him repeating the exposition), which created a moment of tremendous expectancy.

This was not an indulgent or solid reading, rather it was a time-taken traversal that made the two movements complementary. With idiom and sonority honed, the latter often translucent in the presentation of inner parts (spectral undercurrents), service was paid to the composer in the best possible way – the music was allowed its expansion over decades to be relevant to us rather than be an exercise in academia.

Weller began A German Requiem with all the intent of the longest possible view. Brahms’s Tenebrae – with low-string sonorities given time to impart – drawing the listener in. Weller had some surprises later – not least the rampant tempo for the sixth movement, a dramatic and contrapuntally-exacting realisation of Brahms’s “reaching from earth to heaven” (to quote from Calum MacDonald’s note), superbly timed in final exultation. Christopher Maltman invested his solo here (and in the third movement) with an almost operatic delivery that put the words across in no uncertain terms.

Just occasionally the BBC Symphony Chorus, singing with spirit and devotion, seemed too many in numbers; while commensurate with Weller’s conception, some balance problems were evident, and not least on the few occasions the harp plays. The organ, on stage, its sound fed through speakers, and mostly contributing pedal points, was rather thick-textured; so too the mightiest moments when chorus and orchestra were too much a coagulate. Yet it seemed not to matter, for Weller had penetrated to the heart of this music, which was re-created in intense and vivid communication – thrilling, noble and moving. Whether in the baleful march of the second movement or the meditation of the final one, Weller caught the mood; a colleague’s description of the work as being “from dawn to dusk” seemed particularly apt here.

Do try and catch the broadcast of this absorbing rendition. Sally Matthews (who replaced Janice Watson at short notice), if understandably slightly outside of Weller’s conducting, gave a richly expressive account of her one solo, her ample voice the right side of demonstrativeness, phrasing and tone control impressively finished. Her profile was raised, so too Walter Weller’s, A German Requiem confirmed as a blazing masterpiece.

  • BBC Radio 3 broadcast, Monday 14 April at 7.30

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