snagS & Snarls

Der Freischütz – Overture
snagS & Snarls [European premiere of original version]
Symphony No.6 in A

Christiane Oelze (soprano)

Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Kent Nagano

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A Prom with its own brand of subtly pervasive Romanticism – opening with an account of the overture to Weber’s “Der Freischütz” which evoked Mendelssohn in its formal security and well-behaved demeanour. Apart from an awkward lurch into the coda, this was a decent run-through – albeit with the Deutsches Symphonie displaying qualities to be fully utilised later in the programme.

Crass as it may be to make such analogies, it seems that the Korean-born composer Unsuk Chin is poised to take up the position long occupied by György Ligeti – above all, in her music’s fantasy and sense of the capricious. Facets much in evidence in “snagS & Snarls” (2004) – described as “Scenes from Alice in Wonderland for Voice and Orchestra”, the opera that Chin is currently engaged on (and a project which Ligeti has himself been entertaining for at least two decades). The advertised ‘world premiere of new version’ failed to materialise, so we had instead Chin’s original song-cycle for soprano (rather than the advertised two voices) and a diverse though not overly large orchestra – drawing on texts by Lewis Carroll.

Of course, Lewis Carroll’s writing is universal in its appeal – such that it seems chauvinistic to suggest that Unsuk Chin has not got to grips with the syntax and ‘flow’ of his language. Yet for all the evident whimsy in the opening “Alice – Acrostic”, the phrasing seemed designed to place maximum strain on the singer’s projection both of the vocal line and verbal meaning, with the setting of a composite “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” too po-faced to be genuinely amusing. Better were the child-like philosophising of “Who in the world am I?” and the lightly applied sprechstimme of “The Tale-Tail of the Mouse”, before the lively setting of “Speak roughly to your little boy” rounded off the cycle with appealingly robust energy.

Christiane Oelze (her appearances in the UK too infrequent in recent years) delivered it all with gusto, and was only briefly phased by the awkwardness of the word-setting. One other point – “snagS & Snarls” seems by far the most derivative of Chin’s works to date, with elements of Oliver Knussen’s double-bill after Maurice Sendak and (inevitably?) David del Tredici’s “Alice” cycle intruding on the composer’s fastidious idiom: suggesting her own ‘Alice’ opera had best be approached with guarded anticipation.

There can be little doubt that, since taking up the reins at the Deutsche Symphonie five years ago, Kent Nagano has fashioned an orchestral response of all-round richness and depth, such as is ideally suited to Bruckner. His account of the Sixth Symphony was one of unforced eloquence and striking clarity with regard to the important woodwind writing that too often passes for little with this composer. Interpretatively, the Adagio was the highpoint in its effortless amalgamation of expressive contrasts towards the most inwardly serene of Bruckner codas, with the elusive Scherzo hardly less convincing in its ambivalent half-lights and – in the Trio section – reticent dance motion.

With the outer movements, Nagano hedged his bets a little too obviously – carefully modifying the basic tempo so each proceeded intently to its eventual destination without undue awkwardness but with some lack of cumulative emotional intensity. In the opening ‘Majestoso’, over-zealous use of dynamics robbed the opening of the reprise and close of the coda of their implacability, even though the later – one of Bruckner’s keenest inspirations – was allowed to unfold on its own, intuitive terms. If the finale – one of its composer’s most quixotic – emerged as little more than the sum of its parts, Nagano ensured that its startling combination of majesty and humour was never allowed to undermine the final apotheosis – whose combination of themes is itself indicative of a strangely restive finality.

So, a fine performance overall which should be worth revisiting when Nagano and his orchestra commit it to disc. A pity, though, that not more people thought it worth hearing in the present, live context.

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