Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Hänsel und Gretel [Selection: Overture – Opening Duet – Sandman’s Song – Prayer – Dream Pantomime; sung in German]
Rebecca Bottone (soprano) & Caitlin Hulcup (mezzo-soprano)
Sir Charles Mackerras
Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers
Reviewed: 13 December, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The Beethoven played to Sir Charles’s strengths; clocking in at 39 minutes, and played with all repeats, this was a sprightly ‘Pastoral’, one which was chirpy, care-banished, with lean textures from the strings as well as some gorgeous piping from woodwinds. Sir Charles – employing valve-less trumpets, antiphonal violins, and double basses spread across the back-wall of the platform – produced an enlivened account, every texture alive and burgeoning. Cobwebs were dusted away, producing the passionate response to the countryside that Beethoven surely envisaged.
The ‘Scene by the Brook’ was leisurely, a relaxing stroll, and its birdcalls – cuckoo (clarinet), nightingale (flute) and quail (oboe) – were glorious evocations: Kenneth Smith’s sublime nightingale toyed with Gordon Hunt’s quail, whilst Mark van de Wiel’s cuckoo provided cheeky interruptions. Transparency in the string sound gave the ‘Storm’ a lean, penetrating texture, which revealed elemental power, and its devilish first murmurings on cellos whetted the appetite. After the storm – the ground soaked wet – sunlight causes life to return to the now-safe outdoors. The grass is refreshed and nature awakes as people gather to give thanks. Played with plenty of gusto, the violins danced, and the playing was determined until the contemplative close. This was a glorious evocation of nature and such a pity that it was not recorded.
A meagre offering from Englebert Humperdinck’s “Hänsel und Gretel” – a drastic abridgment of Acts One and Two, and not even the ‘Hexenritt’ – was the other item on the playbill. This music required a more restrained approach than Sir Charles gave it. The Overture (the opening prayer-motif reminding of the naval hymn “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”, music by John Bacchus Dykes) offers most of the opera’s themes, and was expedient, with phrases tripping over each other and giving rise to smudged lines and a loss of magic. The closing ‘Dream Pantomime’ was characterful, though the trombones were too forceful. The singing soloists were dressed for the part, and both played off each other like the caring brother and sister that they are. Caitlin Hulcup sang the Sandman’s Song with touching beauty, the innocence of its words glowing handsomely throughout the sublime line that she maintained. With Rebecca Bottone (Gretel), they were a well matched pair, and were touching in the ‘Prayer’ – asking angels to guard them as they sleep in the forest.