Messages for the Queen of Sheba … Leningrad Symphony

Five Messages for the Queen of Sheba [London premiere]
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.60 (Leningrad)

Orchestre National de France
Kurt Masur

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 29 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Although the Arena was well-filled, this concert sold disappointingly in the stalls and in the seats higher up. A shame, for this was one of the great Proms of the season.

Kurt Masur has had much more of a presence with Orchestre National in Paris than he has with the London Philharmonic in London. On the evidence of this concert, their partnership is in rude health, the players responsive to Masur’s ever-musical approach. Given that his tenure with the LPO will be over by next year’s Proms (Vladimir Jurowski is scheduled to take over as principal conductor at the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall, next June), presumably it will only be with the ONF that we may see him back at this Kensington address – and hopefully both will return.

Masur has previously conducted Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony in London – on his final tour with the New York Philharmonic and, in December 2004, with the LPO) – as ever, I was struck at his intensely musical way with this score in this wonderful performance; the famous, drum-ridden, opening movement not so much underplayed but sculpted so as not to negate the following three movements. Indeed, his view of the work builds to the final movement’s climactic peroration as the focal point of the whole work and such a view paid dividends. For anyone who believes that Shostakovich’s work is so completely entwined with its overtly political inspirations, this performance proved otherwise: it was a massive, but humane, musical testament and worked perfectly in purely musical terms. As such it was enormously satisfying, with orchestral playing to match: characterful woodwinds, full-bodied strings and firm brass – the extra players of the latter sitting antiphonally to the usual ensemble.

Before the interval was a work new to London (although Manchester had heard it in March, with the Hallé conducted by André de Ridder). Five Messages for the Queen of Sheba is an off-cut (totalling just over 15 minutes) from Hans Werner Henze’s most recent (and possibly final) opera, “L’Upupa und der triumph der sohnesliebe” (The Hoopoe and the Triumph of Filial Love) premièred in Salzburg in 2003 under Markus Stenz and assisted by de Ridder. Although the Queen of Sheba makes no appearance in Henze’s made-up tale with Eastern influences, the title of his five orchestral excerpts make reference to Solomon’s use of the Hoopoe to pass messages to her.

Fabulously orchestrated, Paul Griffiths’s programme note gave enough information as to how they fitted into the opera to make the otherwise obscure characters come alive. The first Allegro – with trombone solo and insistent timpani to end – comes from the fifth of the eleven tableaux with the hero Al Kasim having already captured the hoopoe, but here in argumentative mode. The second (from tableau 2) characterises the ‘baddies’ (the indolent brothers of Al Kasim) with two saxophones, while the third (tableau 9) brings the brothers together. Here there is an intricate string quartet texture that winds sinuously through the orchestral accompaniment, while the fourth section is much more vibrant, representing tableau 10 (Magic Chest) and opens a sonic Pandora’s box to assault the baddies – rather undone by a competing mobile phone on this occasion – while the father, Vizier, who had sent his sons out to find the hoopoe in the first place, ends the orchestral excerpts as he does the opera in tableau 11 (Twilight Hour), content with hoopoe in hand as Al Kasim rides off, the music calm and reflective.

The Salzburg premiere is already issued on DVD (EuroArts 2053929), and with a staging in Italy having taken place, the first UK production of “L’Upupa und der triumph der sohnesliebe” is keenly anticipated, the appetite whetted by Masur’s wonderful performance of these intriguing orchestral extracts.

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