Pelleas und Melisande, Op.5
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40
Guildhall Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 29 November, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Rampant romanticism was at the heart of this Guildhall Symphony Orchestra programme juxtaposing two expansive symphonic poems for large orchestra. Contemporaneously composed – Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben in 1898 and Arnold Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande mostly in 1902 – they made for an enlightening and enjoyable concert. Central to the evening’s success was a genial and venerable Japanese conductor, Takuo Yuasa (born in Osaka in 1949), a globe-trotting maestro (including posts with the Gumma SO, BBC Scottish SO and Ulster Orchestra) whose baton-less and lucid direction inspired the student musicians to great heights. (He was informally attired, too, so the accompanying photograph is not quite complementary!)
Each performance lasted 45 minutes, a further bond between the works, and it was Strauss who suggested to Schoenberg that he look at Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande for musical inspiration. His ‘one-movement symphony’ requires substantial forces, including much woodwind and brass as well as two timpanists and a sparingly used percussion section that here collectively hit really hard in the final climax (something saved until then). Curiously the score’s request for two harps was doubled, although Ein Heldenleben’s requirement for two was honoured. Balancing this battalion was a 70-strong brigade of strings (18, 16, 14, 12, 10).
Following a slightly tentative start, the Schoenberg blossomed to a compelling outing, ultimate tragedy not far from the surface despite much that is tender and very beautiful, skittish too (yes, Schoenberg does skittish, if not for long) and begging the question if he knew Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897). Whether he did or didn’t, his take on Maeterlinck’s drama (there is also incidental music for it by Fauré and Sibelius and an opera by Debussy) is the epitome of a fin de siècle masterpiece, darkly luminous and enchanted, with much that is inward and searing and which goes through the scale of any ‘Tristanometer’ (not that Schoenberg wasn’t indebted to Wagner), with an opulent orchestration (and featuring trombone glissandos that must have seemed novel at the time) and which also stretches tonality, pointing towards Schoenberg’s most uncompromising music; the Five Orchestral Pieces, his Opus 16, was but a few years away, and the rigorous Variations for Orchestra, Opus 31, some two decades down the line. Suffice to say that Yuasa ensured that Pelleas’s symphonic design was kept inevitable and he secured a vividly detailed account (with some superb solos – viola, cello, oboe, clarinet, cor anglais, trumpet) and with an amplitude that did the music proud. At the end, having strolled through the orchestra to pick various players out for individual bows, when Yuasa had them all on their feet, he discreetly left the platform, leaving the musicians to soak up the applause. A touching gesture.
If the Schoenberg is a rarity in the concert hall, unjustifiably, Ein Heldenleben goes the other way, music also easy to indulge and coarsen. Yuasa avoided such pitfalls and, some blemishes aside, conjured a glorious unaffected sweep through the opening section, played with winging spontaneity. The Critics were acerbic and whinging (difficult to write that bit!) and with the arrival of the Hero’s mate (Frau Strauss, Pauline de Ahna, in all but name) leader Roberto González-Monjas rose to the challenge – dare one say heroically – of investing the complex violin solos with playing at once technically poised, sweetly seductive and with eloquent and contrasted characterisation. If, as the Hero prepares for Battle, the off-stage trumpets were not distant enough, then the conflagration itself was rather more than mere sound and fury. The depth of sound produced by the strings later in the work was impressive and, as Mr and Mrs Hero retire to a setting sun, one would also mention the graceful horn-playing of Alex Wide. In a score that can sometimes be wished further, here one was pleased to encounter it, again, a reading that faded to a goodly amount of well-observed silence before enthusiastic applause and whoops of delight.
If the Schoenberg can seem knotty and unwieldy at times, if here with structure and impressionism made powerfully indivisible, it was not eclipsed by the Strauss, however well performed. Throughout the concert, it was clear that the members of the GSO and Takuo Yuasa had developed a warm and productive rapport. Whether he has been to the Guildhall School before I know not, but I do know that he should be invited again soon.