Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ 8th Symphony is played far
too often, and too often played badly: such is the fate of popular warhorses
in the concert repertoire. However, under Walter Weller’s sensitive
baton we experienced an ear-opening interpretation. From the very opening,
darkly brooding ‘cello line, it was obvious this was certainly not just
another run-through. From the outset, Weller had orchestra and audience
in the palm of his hand, such was the concentrated tension he poured
into his conducting.
What struck me about this movement were the tiniest
orchestral details Weller conjured up, so often skimped by other conductors:
notably, a stark and deep viola line, missing in lesser performances.
The ‘cellos and double basses also revealed textural details I had seldom
heard before, whilst the playing of the horns was simply divine, producing
a velvety rich, dark tone.
In the second movement the strings took on a strident,
nervous urgency contrasting well with the woodwind’s incisive dissonance.
Timpanist John Chimes played with great style and assurance, letting
us hear every note Schubert wrote with sharp clarity.
Weller’s tempi throughout both movements were broad
and never dragged and he blended one movement into the other with a
seamless ease: this was indeed a paradigm performance.
Like the Schubert ‘Unfinished’, Brahms’ German
Requiem also opened with deep throbbing ‘cellos, again played with
the most sombre, perfect tone. Seli sind, die da Leid tragen
was perfectly paced by Weller. The detail given to the violas had great
weight and presence, as did the double basses. The BBC SO Chorus sang
with a concentration, delicacy and melting poignancy which was moving
beyond words; the conductor’s pacing was perfect. Denn alles Fleisch
es ist wie Gras was conducted with a solid, steady march-like pace
but in the climactic moments the four horns were too toned-down, sounding
somewhat recessed. While the timpanist had a great sense of rhythmic
momentum his tone was often far too soft-focused and apologetically
held back. The closing passages of this part had intense power, with
Weller inexorably building up the tension with a fine, deliberate precision.
For the overwhelming fugue in the third part, Herr,
lehre doch mich Weller initiated orchestral playing of white hot
energy, with some punctuated woodwind playing uncannily reminiscent
of the woodwind scoring in the closing passages of Bruckner’s 9th Symphony.
Baritone Christopher Maltman had a hauntingly powerful resonance, in
total control from high to low registers, and sung his solo with great
authority and magnetism. Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen was
more reflective, conducted and played with a gentle repose and lyrical
refinement, with tender, delicate singing from the chorus.
For the soprano solo in Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit
Sally Mathews stepped in for an indisposed Janice Watson to sing the
magnificent solo, and she rose to the occasion with assured ease, floating
her phrases effortlessly in a performance that was exquisite. She sang
with a crystalline purity of tone and a mastery of breath control so
necessary to sustain those long lines. This eight-minute solo, "Ye now
are sorrowful", one of the most demanding, but ultimately rewarding,
pieces written for the soprano voice allowed Matthews to wonderfully
float her notes - accompanied by some equally beautifully rendered woodwind
Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt was
played with great swagger with frenziedly swirling strings and rasping
trombones: here Weller’s conducting was both rhythmically taut and wonderfully
buoyant. Selig sind die Toten, "Blessed are the dead," was the
most movingly rendered section of this monumental work, with the chorus
singing with a ghostly, hushed tenderness which melted into the spellbound
Ultimately the BBC SO Chorus provided the crowning
glory of the evening: one simply could not imagine this work being sung
better, with such a wide range of colour, emotion and intensity. Chorus-master,
Stephen Jackson deservedly got a warm round of applause. Walter Weller
marshalled his forces to music making of the highest order, holding
his audience riveted in the grip of his mesmerising concentration.
The concert can be heard on Monday, 14th
April at 7.30 pm on BBC Radio 3, in their ‘Performance on 3’ programme.