Edinburgh International Festival – Bamberg Symphony/Nott (3)

Prelude and Fugue on
Variations for Orchestra, Op.31
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43

Thomas Trotter (organ)

Stephen Hough (piano)

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
Jonathan Nott

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 1 September, 2005
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

A five-concert residency at a major festival speaks volumes. So too a recording contract. The Bamberg Symphony and Jonathan Nott have both. And, given Nott’s fine instinct for presenting and unifying a diverting mix of music, these aren’t ‘ordinary’ concerts. Without altering the traditions of how concerts are presented, Nott juxtaposes repertoire with a thoughtfulness and awareness that is enticing and stimulating.

In the third of five Bamberg Symphony evenings at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, Nott demonstrated how a non-orchestral contribution could be made intrinsic.

This “Programme of Variations” began with the orchestra on the platform and Jonathan Nott and Thomas Trotter entering together, the latter heading for the organ console at the back of the hall. Not that orchestra and conductor had anything to contribute to Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue (a tribute to Bach using the German musical notation of his name – B is B flat, and H is B). While Trotter gave a vibrant account, including some virtuoso pedalling, of Liszt’s fecund exploration of the four notes (Variations, though?) on the fine-sounding Usher Hall organ, Nott (standing) and his orchestra became part of the audience.

The idea was that Schoenberg’s Variations would follow uninterrupted; of course, despite a note in the programme and on notices adorning the walls requesting no applause, there were some who couldn’t resist it. A shame.

The very particular soundworld of Schoenberg’s Variations (Trotter turning from the keyboard to listen) was thrown into particular relief by having first heard the solo organ – no doubt part of Nott’s stratagem. This confident and lucid account should have found anyone unfamiliar with (or wary of) one of Schoenberg’s ‘serial’ masterpieces pleasantly surprised. With no need to apply beauty for its own sake or excessively highlight particular colours (the flexatone, for example), Nott and his musicians got to the heart of the work’s musical processes, the superfine balances and clarity of sound aided by having the violin sections either side of the podium. (This was the standard seating position that Schoenberg would have known, not least when Furtwängler conducted the premiere of Variations in 1928.) Nott made one miscalculation in, sometimes, allowing too long a pause between sections.

Stephen Hough wasn’t always at his best in Rachmaninov’s take on Paganini. His characteristic mercurial address was present but sometimes there was a lack of poise; indeed there was a forcing of both pace and fortissimos, enough to suggest a deliberate anger. ‘Pag Rhap’ was suggested as being darker and more troubled than ‘usual’. The Bamberg Symphony’s warm and natural sound was, again, an uncorrupted light onto the music itself, although the earlier stages had not been ideally co-ordinated between soloist and orchestra and some of the latter’s timbres were a little muddy and uncertain. After a well-prepared-for and unmannered delivery of the Variation (No.18), the coruscating final passages were brought off with electricity and the witty pay-off was timed to perfection.

This intriguing programme, which included two exceptionally popular works that were slotted in without erroneous celebrity, concluded with Boléro (also written in 1928). A superb performance, this, given with seductive phrases and silky solos (not least from flute, saxophone and trombone). This was no glib sonic spectacular but a hypnotic journey through music now bastardised out of its original intention. Whether “Variations” or not (more a slow-burn crescendo with the repeated tune differently scored on each return), Nott and the Bambergers looked beyond what Boléro has become. Ravel himself thought it “orchestration without music”; he maybe would have felt differently given Nott’s dancing rather than mechanistic approach.

After something revealing, the encore was as scintillating as it was perplexing – that is until the penny dropped about halfway through: the last movement of Ligeti’s Concerto românesc.

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