Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)
Gil Shaham (violin)
Helena Juntunen (soprano), Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo-soprano), Eric Cutler (tenor) & Neal Davies (bass)
BBC Symphony Chorus
Reviewed by: Chris Caspell
Reviewed: 28 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
A packed house greeted the Minnesota Orchestra for its second outing at this year’s Proms. Gil Shaham replaced Lisa Batiashvili in a Berg Violin Concerto that was as remarkable as the Beethoven symphony was not.
Berg’s concerto was written following the death of Alma Gropius’s 18-year-old daughter Manon (‘Mutzi’) Gropius (Alma, Mahler’s widow, was now married to architect Walter Gropius). Berg was shocked by Manon’s death and dedicated his Violin Concerto ‘To the Memory of an Angel’. Soon after completing the score Berg was stung by a bee and later died of blood poisoning, so the concerto was also be his requiem.
In a performance during which Gil Shaham’s intense and vital playing was both perceptive to the solo part and also to the orchestra’s complex role, Osmo Vänskä skilfully took control of the work’s dynamics and details, from the hushed pianissimo at the work’s start, reining in the orchestra and avoiding the temptation to get too loud too soon. The two clarinets and bass clarinet tripped nicely about their scherzando passage at the start of the second-section allegretto with Vänskä expertly paying attention to the waltz-like characteristics that are essential to this part of the concerto. The second movement, also of two sections, begins allegro, but with lots of rubato and in the manner of a cadenza, Shaham overcoming its many difficulties, the Minnesota Orchestra making tidy work of its contribution, handling the episodic content well.
The return to the opening Adagio incorporates the chorale ‘Es ist Genug’ (It is enough) from Bach’s Cantata No.60 entrusted to the hushed tones of a clarinet choir, the words “Mein Jesus kömmt; nun fallt, so spanne mich doch aus!” (My Jesus comes; now if it please you, unyoke me now at last!) written into the score. Following the final invocation to God to take the soul of this angel there was silence for several seconds before any applause was heard. As an encore Shaham played with utmost musicality the ‘Sarabande’ from Bach’s B minor Partita (BWV1002), displaying the beauty of tone of his 1699 ‘Countess Polignac’ Stradivarius which was already 20 years old when Bach completed his unaccompanied violin music.
Until the 1980s Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony was habitually performed on the penultimate night of each Proms season but since then has been repositioned to other evenings. Completed in 1824, three years before the composer’s death, the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme from the symphony’s finale has been adapted as the European Anthem.
In this Minnesota account, from the very opening bars the music felt pressured. It was too fast; certainly it was too fast for this orchestra. Despite Vänskä’s best efforts, he did not show the same attention to detail that he gave to the Berg, although the use of antiphonal violins did help the acoustics of the symphony. Sadly that is about all the good that can be said about the performance, a first movement for which the overall sound was too ample, the opening much louder than Beethoven’s hushed pianissimo. It seemed that little had been learnt from ‘period’ performance. There was very little light and shade, which in turn meant no noticeable subtlety of phrasing.
The scherzo fared better in its sprightliness and fine attention to detail, save the winds were character-less in the trio. Sadly, a curse for this performance throughout meant the winds (and horns) were severely underpowered as compared to the strings, although it is good to have such a muscular string section, evident in the slow third movement for example. However, the winds needed to project much more, and the strings, when the wind instruments took their turn, needed to hush more; maybe this was a misjudgement of the Royal Albert Hall acoustic.
Some in the audience insisted on clapping between movements, which did not help continuity, especially between the slow one and the finale. In the former, the opening was unsurprisingly lush and full considering the strength of the string section, though later the movement was a little rushed to an uneven and messy conclusion. The opening of the finale, marked fortissimo, was anything but, and the tempo, for all the indication is Presto, was too fast for these performers and the recitative was rushed, the music given little chance to catch its breath. Granted, Vänskä followed the score to the letter, playing the recitative in tempo but since the overall speed was too fast the effect of the marking “in the character of a recitative” was lost.
The reading as a whole was salvaged by the vocal soloists and chorus who lifted the performance with clear diction and fine attention to detail, no doubt enhanced by the chorus-members singing without scores. The ‘Turkish’ music went well, the contrabassoon belching out its bottom B flat and pre-empting Dukas’s Sorcerer. Strange things happened with the principal horn’s rhythm in the syncopation just before the return of “Freude, Schöner Götter funken” at letter M but, to be honest, there was little that could have saved this performance.