Edinburgh International Festival – Bamberg Symphony/Nott (5)

Symphony No.1 in D, D82
Clarinet Concerto in A, K622
Lied für Orchester [UK premiere?]
Symphony No.8 in B minor, D759 (Unfinished)
Symphony No.9 in D minor

Jörg Widmann (clarinet)

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
Jonathan Nott

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 3 September, 2005
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

This extraordinary event, the culmination of the Bamberg Orchestra’s hugely successful Edinburgh Festival residency, was two concerts – quite literally since it ran to just under 4 hours. Rightly, since the Bambergers and Jonathan Nott have given us some of the Festival’s most memorably spontaneous music-making, their final programme was rewarded with a packed and enthusiastic house.

The evening’s two final works alone – Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ and Bruckner’s unfinished 9th – are regularly paired as an entire programme. To precede them with three further works – all around the half-hour mark – might be thought to have been inviting disaster, but this would be to reckon without the Bamberg Symphony. Fortunately this wonderful orchestra loves to make music, even as part of an arduous series of five concerts in just six days.

Nott’s ongoing Schubert symphony cycle for Tudor is shaping up to be one of the most satisfying on record, so it was both appropriate and courageous of him to kick off the evening with the least played of all, No 1. Schubert wrote it when he was only 16 and it is an agreeably eccentric and discursive work. With a reduced orchestra – founded on four double basses – the Bambergers made the most of its quirky harmonies and more unconventional aspects, with, in the first movement, a finely sculpted lead-back to the recapitulation. Instinctively, this is an orchestra that is able to find the right sound for Schubert – not trying to make it sound like Beethoven but not under-powered either – and full of natural character. Nott is especially perceptive when Schubert’s music turns a corner and spins off in a new direction (as in the finale), and he also caught the scherzo’s rough humour as well as the trio’s Lanner-like dance character.

Mozart’s sprightly, lilting Clarinet Concerto also cleverly served to introduce the evening’s next composer, Jörg Widmann, who also happens to be a superb clarinettist in his own right. This was a reading full of light and shade, with much give and take between orchestra and soloist, treating the concerto as an extended aria – a glorious antidote to all those over-solemn strait-laced renditions. The central Adagio was notably rich, its texture warmed by some superb horn playing, and Widmann made real magic. The concluding Rondo had a joyously exuberant quality – the pauses breathed and Widmann introduced a playful unpredictability that was entirely apt.

Although not explicit from the programme notes, the second part of the concert featured what one takes to be the UK premiere of Widmann’s Lied für Orchester, an extended Schubert-related meditation. This Bamberg Symphony commission received its first performance under Nott in December 2003 and has already been recorded by Tudor. Had everything we know been destroyed in some catastrophic event, yet by some miracle a composer survived post-apocalypse and tried to recreate an impression of a golden past, Lied would be it (but with the nuclear ash still falling). Widmann’s original idea was to create a continuous melody passing from one instrumental group to another, echoes of a Schubert song stripped of its accompaniment, but this changed into something altogether more complex. This is unnerving music, a 30-minute threnody for a world of lost content; melodic and accessible one moment but punctuated by moments of shocking violence at others, delicate pizzicatos shattered by a single gong stroke, the violins frequently playing softly at the stratospheric limits of their range. Besides the usual instruments the orchestra also includes an accordion used with extreme tact. Seldom can a new piece been given with such commitment; a duet between clarinet and cello lingers in the mind.

This led directly into an ‘Unfinished’ on the grandest possible scale, the juxtaposition with the Widmann a potent reminder of the extreme bleakness at the heart of what is probably Schubert’s most famous work. Taken at a slowish tempo the first movement’s so-familiar second subject came as if half-remembered in a dream, the volcanic eruptions of the development then given with enormous heft. Less controversial was the Andante with its string balances precisely calibrated and with a perfect blending of tone between oboe and clarinet in their duet; what a benefit, too, in this symphony to have such a securely sensitive first horn underpinning significant moments.

And so to Bruckner 9 during which a few (but not too many) Edinburgh ladies drifted off into the night. This was at its most moving in the closing Adagio (albeit not Bruckner’s intended finale) with rich but never cloying Bamberg strings and some gloriously mellow playing from the massed horns and Wagner tubas – the work’s very ending was quite remarkably secure thanks to their confident playing. In the first two movements, despite much fine playing, one was less convinced. Nott’s conception, objective and unmannered, misses some of the neuroses inherent in the music, that sense of living at the edge of a vortex, of things spinning out of control – for example, in the awed backwash to the first movement’s gigantic central climax it is important that the sense of forward motion be maintained; whereas here momentum and intensity was lost. Elsewhere there was much real eloquence, especially at moments when the strings dominated. Joseph Keilberth, the orchestra’s first chief conductor, was a fine Brucknerian and his spirit clearly lives on. A wonderful concert and a fitting conclusion to a remarkable series from a genuine orchestra-conductor partnership such as one all-too-rarely encounters these days: tradition at its best.

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