Serious Songs and Heldenleben

Variations on the St Anthony Chorale, Op.56a
Four Preludes and Serious Songs [UK premiere]
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40

Johan Reuter (bass-baritone)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Marc Albrecht

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sad to report that for this concert the ‘prommers’ abandoned the Royal Albert Hall in droves. The advantage was that those who did come listened ‘properly’ – not providing a thoughtless counterpart of their own noise to the music nor crashing in with immediate (ignorant) applause after the quiet endings of the Brahms/Glanert and Strauss pieces. (In other words, ‘Hooray Henrys’ and celebrity-seekers were absent!) But the numbers of ‘genuine’ music-lovers in London is hopefully more than this. While it was good to see Martyn Brabbins and David Robertson in the audience, even the Arena was sparsely populated – a real shame, for Marc Albrecht’s London debut (I assume) turned out to be altogether special. He was born in 1964 and this intriguing programme made an auspicious entrée for a musician who seems sated with opera; his stage-repertoire includes Richard Strauss, Wagner (not least “The Flying Dutchman” at Bayreuth), Debussy, Janáček, Wellesz and Messiaen.

One-time assistant to Claudio Abbado and formerly Music Director of the Darmstadt State Theatre, Marc Albrecht (whose recent engagements include appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden and NHK Symphony) will shortly become Chief Conductor of the Strasbourg Philharmonic. At this Prom Albrecht left a big impression; he commands authority without imposition, brings a lucid conducting technique to bear, and has a very keen ear for detail, colour and sonority. Here he conjured compelling performances.

Brahms’s Variations (long-known for not being on a theme by Haydn, with Ignaz Pleyel being the current nominee, it seems), Albrecht’s conducting of ‘St Anthony’ was as unforced as it was considered – a relaxed and balanced view, corners expressively turned and with autumnal colours to the fore. The penultimate Variation was hushed and spectral and the final one a measured apotheosis.

Detlev Glanert (born 1960) has been building a catalogue of impressive compositions. His expansion of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs was achieved in 2005. Using an orchestra of Brahmsian dimensions (including harp and trombones), Glanert has fashioned, with respect and imagination, something considerably more than ‘four songs orchestrated’. With the addition of four original preludes, and a postlude – all five for orchestra alone – Glanert seems to offer a microcosm of German music that embraces Richard Strauss and the Mahler of the Tenth Symphony together with expression of our own times. Such overlays invoked similar treatments as effected by Luciano Berio, and the first of Glanert’s preludes seemed indebted to ‘early’ Sibelius (a composer close to Glanert’s heart, I believe, as indeed is ‘musical history’ in toto).

Playing continuously for 25 minutes, Glanert’s orchestration of, and additions to, Brahms’s wonderfully eloquent and searching song-settings (there are also ‘straight’ scorings of these by Malcolm Sargent and Erich Leinsdorf) is both focussed to Brahms’s intentions and sensibility yet looks beyond that in distinct yet related styles. Given here a performance that left no doubt as to Glanert’s achievement, or the requirement to hear even more of his music, the singing of Johan Reuter also left an indelible impression. Singing with restraint, opulence and deep feeling (even some huskiness in the lower registers was attractive) – and with compelling naturalness (and from memory) – Reuter got to the heart of these songs and seemed completely at-one with Glanert’s ‘dressing’ of them. In short, a triumph.

As it was, too, for Ein Heldenleben (which Detlev Glanert stayed on for). Marc Albrecht led a fresh account of music all-too-easy to indulge and make bombastic, and his layout of the orchestra – including antiphonal violins with double basses positioned to the left – is what the composer wrote for. If there was a seeming lack of swagger in the opening section as ‘The Hero’ (Strauss himself) strides forth, then Albrecht’s understatement gathered a long-viewed intensity, and ‘The Hero’s Adversaries’ (music critics!) were more garrulous than spiteful. Elizabeth Layton’s superb violin solos were flirtatious, capricious and feisty (and seemed an ideal portrayal of soprano Pauline de Ahna, Strauss’s wife). The ensuing ‘Battle’ could (I suppose) have been more hard-hitting (in ‘obvious’ terms) but was long-viewed to eventual triumph and texturally clarified most gratifyingly.

With the section of quotations wittily brought off and ever-more glowing textures signalling culmination, Albrecht completed the journey with a quiet contemplation that would have made Strauss’s original fade-away ending as the ideal completion. That Albrecht opted for the ‘usual’ revision (a final flourish before a return to enchantment) is neither here nor there, though, for his attention to detail (quite a few ‘new’ features from ‘inside’ the orchestra were unearthed) and balance (brass never overloud) was a real pleasure to listen to. This was certainly a Heldenleben for the ears.

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