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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 36: Mozart, Janáček, Mahler Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (soprano); John Daszak (tenor); London Philharmonic Choir; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov. Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday August 11th, 2004 (CC)


Janáček’s Véčne evangelium (‘The Eternal Gospel’, 1914) received its first airing at the Proms on this occasion; moreover, it is seldom heard, its discography slight and yet it is powerful and fascinating. The text is Jaroslav Vrchlický’s version of Cistercian mystic Joachim de Fiore’s interpretation of part of the Book of Revelations, centring on the Kingdom of the Spirit (where Love rules over all).


This was without doubt the best-prepared piece of the night (is it too much to hope that this might turn up as a cover disc to BBC Music Magazine one month?) Volkov’s invocation of ghostly matters by the opening string tremolandi and the very identifiable Janáček line in woodwind and horns spoke clearly of this care; violin solos (the BBCSSO’s leader, Elizabeth Layton) were musically moulded. John Daszak was the tenor soloist, strong and clear in the annunciatory opening line (‘Now what is written in the Revelation will come to pass!’), joyous fanfares underpinning the text. The second movement, an adagio, follows on without a break, and the big, expertly balanced chorus had a chance to assert itself. Daszak coped well with the Czech (only ‘řidim’ – the notorious sung háček-ed ‘r’ - emerged as ‘jidim’.)


The drama of this twenty-minute work was laid bare by Volkov and his forces who seemed to thoroughly enjoy this voyage of discovery. Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (positioned in front of the choir as against Daszak’s front-line) was absolutely radiant in her contributions (no pronunciation problems here, too.) The second movement’s text centres on the emergence of the ‘Third Kingdom’, the RAH’s great organ underpinning the final climax on ‘The Kingdom of eternal love will come to us!’


The final Andante ends similarly glowingly, at the self-same words – Daszak lived up to the challenge of the unaccompanied ‘I, Joachim de Fiore, foresee that golden age’, while the final statement of the recurring line ‘The Kingdom of eternal love will come to us’ was bathed in melting, golden light from Janáček’s harmonies. Magnificent, and I hope to hear this piece again soon.


Mozart’s Symphony No. 32 acted as an overture (the symphony is essentially an overture anyway and has in its performance history functioned as such.) A much reduced orchestra sounded very bass-light and there were charming moments (the second subject of the Allegro exuded an opera buffa air,) but the slower middle section was if anything too slow, and oboes and horns for their combined solo were muddied in the vast spaced of the RAH. This, I hope, will not make it to aforesaid cover-mount CD.


And so to Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, presumably intended as the main course (although it is the Janáček that will remain firmly lodged in my memory.) Despite a promising beginning this was a subdued affair that spoke of lack of confidence with the notes on the part of the orchestra and lack of familiarity with a Mahlerian idiom on Volkov’s part. Agogic timings implied maybe a learned interpretation, or a going through the motions (certainly it did not feel entirely like Mahler …), but even more disconcerting was the lack of depth of sound, almost like only half the orchestra was there. Climaxes needed more of a raw edge to them and while there was an appropriately nightmarish, mechanistic feel to some passages it felt as if Volkov was somewhat at sea. Extremes, so important in Mahler, were not carved out enough so that the all-important angst that lies at the heart of this composer’s music was missing.


Mahler’s Seventh Symphony includes two Nachtmusik movements. Whilst the first was flowing, the parodistic, extreme elements were weak. Cowbells were somewhere back in the hall. Similarly, the second Nachtmusik lacked suavité, skimming along the surface of the music. As for the Scherzo, the key missing pat was that it simply was not elusive enough. It needs to be enshrouded in mystery, but that was effectively precluded due to evident lack of rehearsal. The strings, instead of scampering ghoulishly, sounded like they were in a final rehearsal not the concert, concentrating on every note. An ‘Ivesian’ moment (an outrageous melody on trombone) certainly needed to be more daring, to ‘come out’, if you will.


The brass, so important in the finale, were good but not superb. The main interpretative problem was that the juxtapositions were simply not sudden enough; on a dynamic level, fortissimos lay somewhere between forte and fortissimo. Volkov committed the cardinal sin of using speed for excitement rather than letting the compositional processes generate an inner momentum of their own, one that is truest to the music. The final peroration could not, therefore, work (and of course it didn’t.) A great shame. Schoenberg’s admiration for this work seemingly knew no bounds – he immediately appreciated its forward-looking nature. It would have been hard to guess the importance of this monumental, and still under-rated, Mahler symphony from this performance.


Colin Clarke


Further Listening:


Janáček: Drízgová, Doležal, Brno forces/Svárovský, ArcoDiva UP 0011 2231


Mahler Symphony No. 7: NYPO/Bernstein Sony Classical Bernstein Century SMK60564



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