Mahler, trans. Schoenberg
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
A Mirror of Whitening Light
Passacaglia, Op.1 [transcribed]
Erwartung, Op.17 [transcribed]
Owen Gilhooly (baritone)
Rachel Nicholls (soprano)
Foyle Future Firsts
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 1 April, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Purcell Room
Now in its fourth year, the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Foyle Future Firsts training programme for young musicians is willing to take on notably demanding fare such as that featured in this concert.
An oddly constituted but well-balanced programme saw a modern British classic combined with three such from the Viennese canon. The former was Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s A Mirror of Whitening Light (1977): his first – and, until quite recently, only – collaboration with the London Sinfonietta; and also one of the most enduring of all his instrumental works. The play of light where the Atlantic and North Seas meet on the coast of Hoy (the Orkney isle on which the composer had his home for many years) inspired this succinct yet cumulative ‘tone poem’, in which passages of greater or lesser rhythmic velocity and textural density generate a momentum to which Davis has often aspired but not always secured. Such at least was the impression conveyed in this performance, whose rough edges were hardlyof account given the vividness of the playing and the forthrightness of Scott Stroman’s conducting.
It was preceded by Mahler’s song-cycle “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” (1884), heard in the chamber transcription prepared (or, at least, overseen) by Schoenberg. Owen Gilhooly was on hand for a performance of manifest commitment and expressive intensity: a touch over-wrought in the opening ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’, perhaps, but with the high-spirits turning to resignation of ‘Ging heut morgen über’s Feld’ thoughtfully judged, and the melodramatics of ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ kept within judicious limits; after which, the fatalistic acceptance of ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ had the right degree of hushed transcendence, not least given Stroman’s sensitive accompaniment.
The second half consisted of two Second Viennese school works adapted for chamber forces. Who actually made these transcriptions was not stated in the programme, and it would be interesting to know if they were by the same arranger. Certainly that of Webern’s Passacaglia (1908) was a near-disaster in its crass recourse to tuned percussion to ‘beef up’ the ‘passacaglia’ subject as well as an abject lack of clarity at climaxes, though Stroman’s over-fast tempos hardly helped in this respect.
By contrast, the arrangement of Schoenberg’s “Erwartung” (1909) was largely successful: surprisingly so, in that the orchestral writing – fastidiously scored for large forces – does not lend itself to being reduced in this way, making the retention of so much salient detail and motivic continuity all the more impressive. A touch of shrillness at climaxes (unavoidable given a relative lack of strings to balance the wind) was not at all inappropriate, while the suspenseful calm elsewhere was amply in evidence. It helped that Rachel Nicholls was so attuned to the expressive extremes of this monodrama – her often eloquent response providing an emotional continuity that the libretto in itself cannot (indeed, should not) convey. Once described as ‘a second of experience extended to almost half-an-hour’, “Erwartung is as consummately organised as it is intensely realised, and there was no doubting either quality here.
For his part, Stroman again favoured a swift overall tempo, but here this was not to the detriment of the musical content and provided an additional frisson that no doubt aided audience involvement. The lack of spatial perspective was, of course, inevitable: the Purcell Room was hardly designed for this piece, even in transcription, and that it succeeded so well was a tribute to those taking part.
- Subsequent to the publication of this review, the London Philharmonic kindly advised that Webern’s Passacaglia was transcribed by Henri Pousseur and Schoenberg’s Erwartung by M Decoust and P Mefano. Both arrangements are published by Universal Edition
- Southbank Centre