Bamberg Symphony Orchestra

Verwandlung [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Symphony No.4

Hélène Grimaud (piano)

Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano)

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
Jonathan Nott

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 27 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This was the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra’s first London appearance with music director Jonathan Nott (appointed in 2000) following acclaimed appearance at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2003 and last year. The orchestra is expertly drilled, Jonathan Nott a keen taskmaster, seeming to prefer his music fleet, with clipped phrasing and promoting individual instruments. Nott’s playing of Ligeti is highly praised: I can hear why.

The sounds of Wolfgang Rihm’s Verwandlung (change; conversion; transformation) comprise a massive, gnomic statement – reminiscent of Martin Luther’s “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Corners, fragments and shards of the bulk come to light every now and then. We began with a G two octaves above middle C. The note was handed from one instrument to another, gaining a quite different quality and resonance each time. Yet the sense of unity – of one note – remained throughout, rather like isolated slivers of silver glinting in the dark. A richer orchestral style followed. It hinted at the Second Viennese School – suggesting that Verwandlung was recognising a collective and lasting transformation of cultural sensibility and consciousness. Dissonance, ‘modernism’ and strange-intervalled lyricism were present too. Overall, though, Rihm’s style suggested someone who had absorbed atonality and absorbed it back into a transformed tonality – a Hegelian process. Two magnificent climaxes made resplendent celebratory use of the Albert Hall’s echo.

In Schumann’s Piano Concerto, Nott and Hélène Grimaud came together delightfully. Both were lithe and keen-muscled, sensitive to Schumann’s delicate and often-tentative sensibility and responsive to his moments of somewhat harsh grandeur. There was no hanging around – the momentum was fluid. Nor did the piece have to carry a dragging burden of Romantic ponderousness. Nott let Grimaud phrase individually and sensitively – these were be-jewelled moments. A lean orchestra matched a lean piano – exactly. Their magic recalled “Dichterliebe”. I realised that this was Schumann in the early 1840s, in Leipzig, writing under the spell of Mendelssohn – and, in terms of inscribing depth with a light, deft touch, how much better. This performance surpassed both of Grimaud’s recordings.

I found much to enjoy in the Mahler, with some caveats. The clarity of the performance was astonishing – lucidly demonstrating Mahler’s preference for chamber scoring and specific sounds (hence, the large orchestra). Nott relished the quirkiness, the discords, the gratingly juxtaposed keys, the cacophony, the boozy satire, and the sudden changes of speed and mood.

This was a strange experience – near-anarchy played with such professional control. And here’s the rub: it all sounded rather contrived – and some of it automatic, by the book. The second movement fared best. Nott excelled in the terse, short-phrased grotesquerie, the often-piercing sounds, the parody and burlesque. (I’d like to hear him conduct Mahler’s Seventh Symphony.) That said, this approach does not suit every movement. The first was too sectional and the slow one lacked its moments of sustained dignity. The accompaniment to the last movement was delightful, however. Inger Dam-Jensen was pleasing, but no more. So many sopranos – perfectly fine otherwise – find the pure, hard tones of the innocent child beyond their capability.

Nott and Ligeti being synonymous, it was fitting that the encore should have been the scintillating finale from Ligeti’s early Concert românesc – brilliantly done!

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