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
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
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?