Hallé/Elder Anne Schwanewilms at Sheldonian Theatre – Music at Oxford International Concert Season

Capriccio – Prelude
Four Last Songs
Symphony No.4

Anne Schwanewilms (soprano)

Sir Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 26 June, 2010
Venue: Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

Sir Mark Elder. Photograph: Clive Barda/ArenapalThe fact that Oxford does not have a dedicated concert hall is often cited by residents as the reason why major orchestras do not visit as often as they might. This concert at the Sheldonian Theatre, the primary purpose of which is “to provide an appropriate secular venue for the principal meetings and public ceremonies of the University”, made this erstwhile fact a fiction as the Hallé, under its music director Sir Mark Elder, brought the full-house audience to its feet in a concert that was slow to take wing but electrifying by the close.

With the stage being in the round of the hall, the bulk of the audience is only a few metres from the orchestra. Being in such close proximity to the musicians can give a unique experience, a bit like having a symphony orchestra in one’s lounge. While such a vantage point can reveal the finest detail of a performance, it can also be like looking at a Turner painting from a distance of six centimetres.

Two of Richard Strauss’s last pieces filled the first half of this concert. The Prelude to his final opera, “Capriccio”, completed in 1941, was composed in July of the previous year. The opera itself (“A Conversation Piece for Music”) is about opera and the Prelude, scored for string sextet, leads the listener to the opening scene in which the composer, Flamand, is seen listening to this music, his latest composition. This performance was a rare opportunity to hear the principal string players of the Hallé playing chamber music. Sadly, it sounded exactly like that – orchestral musicians playing chamber music with very little in the way of the individuality expected of chamber musicians. Technically the performance was sound, but the fiery tremolo section was under-tempo and without any dramatic authority, the performance lacking the egotistical temperament.

Anne SchwanewilmsThere followed Strauss’s “Four Last Songs”, Anne Schwanewilms the soloist. With cellos placed centre-left (violins were antiphonal), the sonorous bass harmonics reverberated through the Sheldonian’s wooden floor and seating. The orchestra appeared uncomfortable during this performance and although its execution was impressive the musicians sounded detached with the music, occasionally overwhelming Schwanewilms who had power in reserve but did not use it. Schwanewilms’s timbre is quite different from the Arlene Auger or Kirsten Flagstad Italianate performances of this repertoire that are often heard as recordings; Schwanewilms is more acerbic with clear and precise diction and a hint of Lotte Lenya-like Sprechgesang. The performance-style may be less familiar but it is entirely appropriate for late Strauss and refreshing to hear.

Composed over a two-year period, Mahler completed his Fourth Symphony in 1901. The finale, with soprano, ‘Das himmlische Leben’, another setting from “Das Knaben Wunderhorn”, dates from 1892 as a separate setting and at one point destined for Symphony No.3, Mahler inspired by the Bavarian folk-song “Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen” (The Sky is full of Violins), presenting music as one of the heavenly joys alongside food and wine. The shortest of Mahler’s symphonies, performances can often make it appear lightweight and without depth – not a criticism to be levelled at Mark Elder.

The luscious string sound of the Hallé was intensified by the Sheldonian’s acoustic and, in the symphony’s first movement, antiphonal violins revealed clarity seldom heard. Raised bells on horns, oboes and clarinets did much to carry their music over the remainder of the orchestra, its members seated on the same level. The second movement, too often taken at a swift tempo, was relaxed under Elder who observed the composer’s overriding wish for the symphony not to hurry. Lyn Fletcher’s tone-higher violin solo, slightly underplayed, was musical with an eye for the dynamic markings that festoon Mahler’s score.

The slow movement can often lose its way. A strong vision of the music and where it is going is needed; Elder has such a vision and emphasised the Sibelian dual qualities of openness and bleakness perfectly. The finale saw the return of Schwanewilms, but not to the earlier imbalance, as soprano and orchestra declared the childlike vision of heaven full of good food and music. As the angelic voice sang joyful praises, Mahler’s symphony drew to a quiet, untroubled close.

The day following this concert, Mark Elder returned to Glyndebourne to conduct the final performance of “Billy Budd”. For now the sounds of the Hallé, which Elder has been Music Director of for ten years, rings on in the wood of the Sheldonian Theatre and in the ears of its patrons. Oxford may not have a dedicated concert hall and world-class orchestras may not come to visit the city all that often (although the Berlin Philharmonic managed it recently), but all that was forgotten as every man, woman and child stood to applaud one of the most memorable concerts to be heard in the city in recent times.

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