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S & H Concert Review

Schoenberg, Strauss, Sibelius; Christine Brewer (sop), BBC SO, Jukka-Pekka Saraste (con); Barbican Centre, 1st November, 2003 (AR)


Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s beautifully balanced programme with the BBC SO opened with Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16 (1909, rev. 1922, 1949). The composer’s Expressionist score was largely formed and informed by the paintings of Kandinsky and Jawlensky associated with The Blue Four, whom he knew and painted his ‘visions’ and ‘gazes’ with. This radical score has more in common with painting than music with its emphasis on amorphous free-floating sound sensations and not symphonic structure. Schoenberg described his five pieces as: "absolutely not symphonic, quite the opposite – without architecture, without structure. Only an ever-changing, unbroken succession of colours, rhythms and moods."

The most haunting of the pieces was The Past which had an eerie sense of a threat coming from a long distance while Chord-colours gave a sense of a timeless stasis bathed in a state of anxiety and nothingness. The Obbligato Recitative fluctuated between a brooding melancholia and a manic hysteria, ending in insomnia, similar in madness and mood to the composer’s self-portraits.

Throughout, Saraste conducted with nervous incisiveness and heated concentration with the BBC SO proving themselves yet again to be one of the UK’s most versatile orchestras, totally in tune with this composer’s unique, complex sound world.

In stark contrast, was Richard Strauss’s sedate Four Last Songs sung by Christine Brewer who replaced an indisposed Karita Mattila. The American soprano’s hard-edged voice seemed badly suited to these tranquil and translucently textured songs. With Frühling, Brewer displayed perfect projection and breath control but her tone was curiously monotone and devoid of expression. In September she improved considerably producing a wide dynamic range of tone and colour with subtlety and refinement. In Beim Schlafengehen, she at last displayed warmth and expression though her top register was often harsh and hard toned. What made this song moving was the poignant violin solo of Michael Davis. The most disappointing was the closing Im Abendrot where Brewer’s interpretation fell flat, with the voice sounding opaque and bland, her lower register lost amongst the orchestra. What was outstanding about this performance were the ‘voices’ of the orchestra as well as the sensitive conducting of Saraste.

After the interval we were treated to Sibelius’ rarely played ‘Scene with Cranes’ Op. 44 No.2 (1906) which was inspired by the composer’s strong identification with Finnish wildlife and its tranquil environment. The composer wrote in his 1915 diary: "Everyday I have seen the cranes flying south in full cry with their music. Have been yet again their most arduous pupil. Their cries echo throughout my being." Here the strings sounded eloquently sparse accompanied by brief cries from the two clarinets, with Saraste brilliantly conjuring up a bleak mood of desolation and grief - an enchanting performance.

The highlight of the evening was Saraste’s paradigmatic performance of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony. Throughout this bleak performance the conductor conjured up darkly grained and taut angular rhythms, strikingly reminiscent of Arturo Toscanini’s NBC SO performance (April 27, 1940: Music & Arts: 1768547552).

The opening, deep biting entry of ‘cellos and double basses had some of the darkest string playing I have heard from any orchestra, immediately conjuring a sense of gloom and doom. The violins had an acidic bite, and the three trombones a menacing attack. Saraste clearly had total control and understanding of the score and let the music evolve organically with no artificial tempi changes or distortions in dynamics.

The following Allegro had a wonderful buoyancy, accompanied by an appropriate nervous tension provided by the razor sharp woodwinds. With the Il tempo largo, Saraste enticed the strings to dig deeper producing a very rich and warm tone while the solo flute was impeccable. The Allegro molto vivace was perfectly judged, with Saraste getting just the right throbbing pulse from the nervously shuddering strings. The woodwinds again had the right shrill-pointed edge to them.

The closing ‘cello passages were ominous and stark with Saraste bringing the music to an abrupt and chilling end, allowing a few seconds of reflective silence to follow by keeping his hand up to stop the anticipated applause: silence was all that was left. This was certainly the darkest performance of this work I have ever heard though there are those who still remember Otto Klemperer’s performance with the same orchestra in the 1950’s as having this distinction. Will BBC Legends issue the broadcast tape now Lotte Klemperer is no longer with us?

Alex Russell



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