Edinburgh International Festival 2003 – Bamberg Symphony

24 August

Nun [UK premiere] *
An Alpine Symphony, Op.64

25 August

Wesendonck Lieder **
Symphony No.3 in D minor (1873 version)

Schola Heidelberg *

Christine Brewer (soprano) **

Bamberg Symphony Ochestra
Jonathan Nott

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 25 August, 2003
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

One of the attractions of the Edinburgh Festival is its bringing of European orchestras whose profile does not necessarily equate with their achievement. Such an orchestra is the Bamberg Symphony – conducted for many years by Joseph Keilberth and Horst Stein and, for the last three years, under the directorship of Jonathan Nott. Now in his late ’30s, Nott is an unfamiliar figure in the UK, but his work both in Bamberg and with the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris testifies to a musician of wide-ranging sympathies and considerable interpretative prowess.

It sometimes seems as though Edinburgh is the last festival where music from the post-war avant-garde can be programmed with relative impunity (memorable performances of Zimmermann, Nono et al resonate in the mind). So Nott’s inclusion of a major orchestral work by Helmut Lachenmann was not the reckless move that, sadly, it would likely prove in London at the present time. A pupil of Nono, Lachenmann has long been established in mainland Europe as a composer of subversive intent – though not in a narrowly political sense – and acute awareness of sound both as a phenomenon in itself and as a creative medium. Such qualities are immediately apparent in Nun (1999) – or Nunc as the programme note would have it: music of ’now’, which seeks to free sound from its historical and aesthetic shackles and present it as an experience of the ongoing present.

Nun features extensive (not necessarily soloistic) writing for flute and trombone – given prominence by their sound being channelled through the resonance of two pianos – and with the role of orchestral trombones taken, to curious but impressive effect, by eight male vocalists whose onomatopoeic contribution sets up an engrossing interplay with an orchestra rich in the panoply of sounds that Lachenmann has evolved systematically and sensitively over nearly four decades. Although specific incidents stand out at certain points in the work, the overall process seems to be one in which disparate, even conflicting events are brought into acoustic and temporal accord. Certainly the closing minutes evinced a degree of balance which signified closure, if not resolution as such.

Having given the world premiere in Cologne four years ago, Nott has clearly absorbed the work in detail, and the outcome here was a vibrant and confident realisation of music whose demands – at all levels – are only met with care and perseverance. The contribution of Schola Heidelberg was skilfully integrated into the musical fabric, which Nott energised with a combination of clarity and purpose. Lachenmann was present to witness the performance, which at the very least intrigued nearly all those who heard it.

In a thoughtful programme contribution, Lachenmann drew comparison between the unstable soundworld represented by his own piece and the about-to-disintegrate magnificence as embodied by Strauss in An Alpine Symphony. Certainly this last and most all-encompassing of the tone poems is far more than a musical travelogue of a day’s mountain-climbing: the underlying ’what goes up must come down’ tenet can be extended to the late Romantic aesthetic as a whole and Strauss’s specific role within it. Thus an experience which, climaxing in splendour and taking in aspiration and conflict on either side, begins in uncertainty and ends in decline.

A trajectory which Nott and his orchestra conveyed to powerful effect in a passionate and unerringly paced account of Strauss’s reckless masterpiece. The brass excelled itself in its strenuous (even by Straussian standards) contribution, while the physical impact of such ’highpoints’ as the arrival at the summit and storm was not downplayed. Yet the lasting import is of resignation in the light of experience, and Nott drew just this quality from the ’Ausklang’ section – distilling a beatific fatalism before the work comes full circle. For this writer, thus far, the performance of a lifetime.

If the following evening offered a mid-Romantic double-bill of less charged intensity, this lessens neither the stature of the music performed or the quality of those performances. Those who heard Christine Brewer’s concert performances of each act of Tristan over the last season with the BBCSO (all reviewed on this site) will have known what to expect in her account of the Wesendonck Lieder – a warm, searching response which overrides sentimentality in ’Der Engel’ and portentousness in ’Stehe still!’ or ’Schmerzen’, while drawing out the apprehension of ’Im Treibhaus’ and emotional ’white out’ of ’Träume’. For his part, Nott drew greater than usual subtlety from Friedrich Mottl’s orchestration of the first four songs.

After the interval, a (happily) increasingly common treat in the original 1873 version of Bruckner’s Third Symphony. Robert Simpson was spot-on when he referred to this work as a symphony wholly in transition, such that Bruckner could not have hoped to solve all the formal problems he had set himself. That said, a flawed continuity has to be preferable to the increasingly desperate ’patch-ups’ of later revisions, and Nott’s interpretation left little doubt that, given a more sympathetic context, the composer would have been right to stick with his initial solutions.

At 63 minutes, this was not the craggy, ungainly epic in can be; rather Nott found a fluid intensity in the opening movement – swift in incident against a spaciously unfolding temporal framework. The machinations of the ’Adagio’ were duly given focus, Nott disguising structural shortcomings with as limpid and unforced a rendition of this often torturous-seeming movement as it can have received. The Scherzo, oddly abbreviated in Bruckner’s initial conception, judiciously contrasted energy and grace, while the prolixity of the finale were as little given the inherent strength and malleability of its ideas. Throughout, the Bambergers played with a combination of leanness and refinement ideal in this most Classical-sounding version (how ironic that Bruckner was to ’trade in’ his Wagner quotes for the tacked-on Wagnerisms of later editions), while respecting the rhythmic subtlety so intuitive to Bruckner as to need many years of performance in order to be understood.

Two lengthy and exacting concerts, then, but Nott found room for a suave account of Brahms’s First Hungarian Dance and, on the second evening, crisp renditions of the last and first (in that order) of Dvořák’s First Set of Slavonic Dances. The Bamberg Symphony is an orchestra of international standing, and Jonathan Nott a conductor to look out for with alacrity. That the current temerity of orchestras in London makes his appearance there unlikely is our loss but – at least on this occasion – Edinburgh’s gain.

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