CBSO/Rattle – 19 October

Debussy orch. Colin Matthews
Three Preludes
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40

Timothy Robinson (tenor)
CBSO Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 October, 2002
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Fresh from his brief European tour at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle returned to Birmingham for the first of two concerts featuring works to be recorded for a fourth Szymanowski disc.

Although conceived in 1923, when still at work on the opera King Roger, the ballet-pantomime Harnasie was not completed for a further eight years. It thus spans almost the entirety of the composer’s final phase of composition, in which the folk music of the Tatra mountain region became absorbed into his music in ever more unexpected ways.

The scenario, concerning the exploits of a posse of bandits and their arrival – not at all unwelcome in some quarters! – at a wedding ceremony, is portrayed in broad brush strokes over three scenes. A solo tenor – here the virile-sounding Timothy Robinson, emerging at various points on the platform – provides a focus at the beginning and end; otherwise the chorus adds its lusty contribution as the highland people to an orchestration opulent even by Szymanowski’s standards. Not that such density was a problem given the clarity and spaciousness of Symphony Hall, allowing a greater immersion in some of the composer’s headiest and most life-affirming writing than previously possible.

Given his credentials in such ballet precursors as The Rite of Spring and The Miraculous Mandarin, it’s no surprise that Rattle should have wanted to take on Harnasie – scenes from an idealised rural existence that had largely ceased to be at the time Szymanowski came to it. Perhaps this explains the poignancy of the brief final scene – in which Harnas sings of his love for the girl he has ’abducted’, and the gaudily-clad textures are fined down to an evocation of imagined and absolute contentment. A thoughtful postlude to a performance which, interpretatively-speaking, carried all before it.

Opening the concert were three of Debussy’s piano preludes in translucent orchestrations by Colin Matthews. If ’Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest’ and ’Feux d’artifice’ lose some of their scintillating intensity when projected on a larger aural canvas, ’Feuilles mortes takes on a succession of autumnal hues entirely apt in context’.

And to close the concert, Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Demonstrably, even pointedly, Stravinskian in articulation during the ’Hero’ and ’Battle’ portions, this was an account that played down the music’s egoist certainties in favour of its humanist aspirations. The ’Critics’ were despatched with venomous bite, and leader Peter Thomas characterised the ’Companion’ with unpredictability and allure that led naturally into the archetypal Straussian love-scene. Interpretatively, the final two sections yield the greatest rewards. Rattle sustained the web of self-quotations with which Strauss suffuses the ’Works’ with calm intensity, and brought a strikingly Schoenbergian angst to the music presaging the ’Retreat’ – the Hero finding fulfilment in one of the composer’s most expressive leave-takings. The clinching recall of the main motif left no false sense of triumph in its wake – only a benediction.

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