Bach orch. Stokowski
Komm, süsser Tod, BWV478
Tod und Verklärung, Op.24
Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 2 September, 2005
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh
An even more daring concert than the night before – if it backfired at the box office somewhat, it was nevertheless a great success as an artistic conception.
As had been made clear with wall-hanging notices at various points in the Usher Hall, the concert would start earlier than advertised. Thus, to the second, at 19.50, ten minutes before the official start-time, Jonathan Nott duly arrived without ceremony on the platform in tails, with baton in hand, to supervise those responsible for initiating Poème symphonique, György Ligeti’s ‘composition’ for 100 metronomes. Disposed in five groups of 20 at the front of the platform, the quiet but beguiling ticking of the metronomes could be discerned amidst the hubbub of a seated, chatting and still-arriving audience; some seemed clueless as to what was happening. As the respective metronomes began to establish their own tempo and as some stopped ‘playing’, the ear could delight in different patterns emerging.
This was a 20-minute ‘performance’, during which the members of the Bamberg Symphony, Jonathan Nott and Alice Coote came onto the platform and waited several minutes before metronome 100 made its arbitrary final click (the power of machinery!). Then, without a break, came Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of a Bach song composed for Georg Christian Schemelli’s “Gesangbuch”; Nott’s tempo was suitably spacious as the sombre if comforting melody was heard first on full strings and then from the rest of the orchestra. If “sweet death, blessed rest” arrives as luxuriantly as this, maybe it won’t be too bad! During the performance, a recalcitrant metronome started to tick again; in context, it worked!
Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” then followed – a good idea to thread music together without applause (or try to!), although someone managed an ill-timed cough. Alice Coote certainly has the richness and intensity to do justice to Mahler’s meditative settings; yet, in the first song, she introduced an unlikeable melodramatic, ‘sobbing’, element and some of her phrases were ungainly. Furthermore, Nott was content to ‘accompany’ her (very well it must be said) rather than establish a unified approach. Coote did settle into something more intrinsic and there was much to admire from her.
Ligeti is a composer especially dear to Nott’s heart, as this account of Lontano demonstrated, one fastidiously prepared, not least in the accumulation of intensity and in the eloquence of the ‘nostalgic’ harmonies. This is music that compels attention in its subtle pitching and bewitching sounds and in the way that a past tradition seems to seep through the mysterious and contemporary veil of timbres.
The account of Death and Transfiguration was, putting it simply, magnificent. Without recourse to affectation, the orchestra sounded glorious, not least the strings and with antiphonal violins a distinct advantage. There was a thrilling inevitability about this performance, the various episodes given full value and also integrated into the whole, and with something kept in reverse for the ultimate climax. Jonathan Nott is a superb Straussian. A shame, though, that someone applauded too early into the significant silence that was established after the final sound.
For an encore was a loving account of the B flat Entr’acte from Schubert’s music for “Rosamunde” – it’s good to find a conductor of Nott’s generation (he’s in his early ‘forties) who doesn’t feel obliged to bring an ‘authentic’ approach to the classics; this was Romantic Schubert, shaped with feeling, and accruing the experience of the music’s two centuries of existence.