Theatrum Bestiarum

Composer Portrait – Detlev Glanert

Violin Sonata
Fantasies for solo piano – Nos.3 and 4
Serenade for cello and piano

Detlev Glanert in conversation with Andrew McGregor

Musicians from Trinity College of Music:
Vera Landwing (violin), Diego Carneiro (cello) & Tau Wey (piano)

Arena, Royal Albert Hall, London

Prom 15

Baba-Yaga, Op.56
The Enchanted Lake, Op.62
Kikimora, Op.63
Whitman Settings, Op.25a
Theatrum bestiarum [BBC commission: World premiere]
The Fairy’s Kiss

Claire Booth (soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
John Storgårds


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 26 July, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This Prom – as enterprising as it was and, regrettably, poorly attended – brought one of the season’s most significant commissions. Now established among the most important German composers of the middle generation, Detlev Glanert won deserved praise for his Third Symphony when premiered at the Proms nine years ago. Theatrum bestiarum brought what was envisaged as its successor, but which stands as an evocative (though not pictorial) entity symphonically integrated in matters of form and expression.

In the pre-concert “Composer Portrait”, Glanert talked about his development as a composer and the role that his occupation represents. Certainly his music has evolved appreciably since the overt Expressionism of the music from his twenties. Yet the funeral march at the centre of the tightly-organised span that is his Violin Sonata (1984), and the respectively mercurial and fatalistic tone of ‘Travelling’ and ‘The West’ – third and fourth of his Four Fantasies for piano (1987) – confirmed an approach to his craft which is both personal and communicative. Both pieces were sympathetically rendered by musicians from Trinity College of Music, as was the Serenade for cello and piano (1986) which marked Henze’s birthday in a compressed and characterful overview of his first sixty years.

Henze was, and continues to be, a major presence in Glanert’s musical thinking, not least on Theatrum bestiarum. Described by the composer as “a dark and wild series of dances … in which the audience looks in upon the dissection of ‘man as beast’”, this substantial (22-minute) piece unfolds as a broadly fast-slow-fast succession. Despite the thunderous opening chord, germinal to the work as whole, the first phase emerges as a understated sequence of alternately expressive and energetic ideas – given added depth by the chamber-like discourse of the central ‘slow’ movement and brought to apotheosis in the final section, itself set in relief by an ethereal coda which caps the piece’s thematic evolution.

Theatrum bestiarum offered challenges to the BBC Symphony’s individual and collective virtuosity which were audibly taken up on this occasion. If the overall work too readily eschews the speculative inwardness found in Glanert’s best music for a more conventional mode of rhetoric, its content had enough substance to warrant further hearings and augurs well for the opera “Caligula” – to be unveiled in Frankfurt next year (though none of Glanert’s operas seems to have made it to the UK as yet).

Not the least aspect of this successful premiere was the conducting of John Storgårds – replacing an indisposed Oliver Knussen, and who gratifyingly adhered to the announced programme. He certainly seemed at home in the latter’s “Whitman Settings”, drawing from their teeming textures a luminosity apt to these most uninhibited ‘settings’ of a poet whose verse often strives towards the numinous – and to whose soaring vocal line Claire Booth gave her all in a memorable Proms debut.

Whether or not Storgårds has previously tackled the Liadov pieces opening this concert, he seemed to be enjoying their piquant orchestration and imaginative flights of fancy: literally so in Baba-Yaga and humorously in Kikimora, with its plaintive cor anglais solo. The Enchanted Lake was similarly well played, though there is rather more textural interest beneath its pristinely flaccid surface than came through here.

As a whole, Stravinsky’s The Fairy’s Kiss was rather less successful. The complete ballet presents its fair share of problems both in terms of specific characterisation and overall coherence – and though Storgårds found an evocative remoteness in the ‘Prologue’ and brought out the theatricalimmediacy of the ‘Village Fête’ scene vividly enough, he seemed to flounder in the divertissement of dances which takes up most of the scene ‘At the Mill’; never quite convincing one that the sequence transcends its balletic conception to become as finely sustained an unfolding of tonal procedures as Stravinsky penned in this phase of his neo-classicism. Nor was the embodiment of Tchaikovskian ideals as effortlessly put across as it might be (something in which Hans Graf’s superbly lucid recent Birmingham account excelled), though the evocation the ‘Epilogue’ affords of a “Land Beyond Time and Place” was moving in its poise and serenity. The Fairy’s Kiss remains among the more elusive of Stravinsky’s ballets, even if the best of this performance went some way to conveying its unique essence.

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