Unfinished Symphony … Songs of Mary Stuart

Symphony No.8 in B minor (Unfinished)
Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op.92
RELIQUARY: Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, enclosing an instrumentation of Robert Schumann’s ‘Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart’ [BBC Radio 3 commission: world premiere]
Symphony No.40 in G minor, K550

Finghin Collins (piano)

Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 9 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Gianandrea Noseda. Photograph: Jon SuperNeither performance of the popular symphonies quite hit the mark, their span undermined by vacuous applause between movements (although the delayed burst after Mozart’s Minuet was almost shamefacedly apologetic). Under Gianandrea Noseda, the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony flowed too easily and was agitated and edgy in the wrong way, too febrile, not willing to deal with dark undercurrents and ethereal asides, the second (last) movement as determined as its predecessor to get somewhere fast and to not get too emotionally involved with the possibilities of Schubert’s troubled testimony to ‘being alive’. Similarly the tragedy of Mozart’s (second) G minor Symphony tended to lose out to swift speeds, smoothness, and choppy accents. There were though lovely woodwind descants in the slow movement, played with feeling, and Noseda’s way with the Minuet and Trio was an object-lesson in unbroken tempo-relationship.

Finghin Collins had but fifteen minutes to make an impression, and did so appreciably, at first gently and with potency, aided by fine contributions from clarinet and horn, and then confidence and without force (but still reaching the outer reaches of the Royal Albert Hall), a rippling and expressive display tactfully accompanied at a moderate tempo.

Dorothea Röschmann. Photgoraph: Jim RaketeIn his orchestration of the five settings that constitute Robert Schumann’s “Songs of Mary Stuart”, Robin Holloway suggests the soundworlds of Korngold or early Berg, a prudent use of a classical orchestra, with harp, celesta, bass clarinet and a little percussion (essentially two different types of military drum and a gong). Maybe these are not Schumann’s greatest Lieder, but Holloway has brought them to new life and added a Prologue, an Epilogue, and Entr’actes that belong stylistically (which may account for the work’s success and, to a certain extent, some doubts) and extend the reach of Schumann’s originals, a tactful update that retains the gloom and hopelessness that was mutual to Schumann and the royal’s final days; the execution-signalling drums said it all. Dorothea Röschmann was a dignified and compassionate interpreter, Noseda and the BBC Phil sensitive partners with Steven Burnard an eloquent violist in the final song, ‘Gebet’ (Prayer).

At 20 minutes, “RELIQUARY” was only a few minutes longer than anticipated (one recalls Holloway’s Domination of Black, 1974, lasting 50 to the stated 20, and his hour-long Symphony, 2000, which was a good one-third extended beyond initial intentions). But that’s creativity for you, and Holloway’s reclaiming of an ‘outsider’ in Schumann’s canon is a neighbourly act. Even so some in the audience were restless and became inattentive with music that is stylistically familiar even in its new clothes (their comfort zone was restored with the first movement of the Mozart, memories of Waldo de los Ríos, perhaps!) and one can only wish a curse on whoever applauded too early when the music disintegrated at its close, Holloway leaving us in fading light and an opportunity (here ruined) to reflect on the shared “isolation and despair” of Mary and Schumann at the ends of the respective lives.

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