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Seen and Heard Prom Review
PROM 49: Gubaidulina and Beethoven, soloists & choirs, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Kurt Masur (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, 20 August, 2005 (AN)
Sofia Gubaidulina (b.1931), The Light at the End
Beethoven, Symphony No.9 in D minor, ‘Choral’
Christiane Libor (soprano)
Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano)
Thomas Studebaker (tenor)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)
Two journeys from darkness to light: one, courtesy of Russian-Tatar composer Sofia Gubaidulina and the other, Beethoven’s ground-breaking symphonic send-off. At the podium, a conductor whose East German heritage has inspired in him the moral determination to perform music that resonates with his philanthropic worldview. Of Masur they say emotion before elegance; sudden impact before long-term shaping; energy before beauty. One hoped for an occasion to celebrate the union of like-minded performer and musical scores, but expectation teetered from a hubristic height.
Gubaidulina’s through-composed The Light at the End served up a hearty, 30-odd minute aperitif. The diminutive 74-year-old composer, who took her bow at the end of the performance, is renowned for her deeply religious music and for her experimentation with alternate tunings – championed by Shostakovich but labelled ‘irresponsible’ by the once Soviet Russia. In as far as The Light was an exploration of these two strands of her musical personality, it was a success – perpetual surges from darkness to light and stark contrasts between neurotic pitch clashes and low, booming resonances propelled an edgy, yet meditative, drive towards a happier resolution.
Less convincing, however, was the idea that The Light worked as an autonomous piece of music, as the programme – charting its gradual working from darkness to light – suggests. Certainly, there is an overall three-part form (the third part is a distorted recapitulation of the first), within which there are several episodes that each make the aforementioned journey from quiet, murky beginnings to fluorescent resolution.
However, there is an underwhelming sense of nothing more than a musical sketch that tends, after a while, towards predictability. No complaints about the orchestra, however, that rose to the occasion of the unorthodox tunings and effects. One particularly impressive moment was the tuba’s bleak run-up to the recapitulation, executed with beautiful control.
An interval separated the good from the great, compositionally speaking; and the excellent from the mediocre, performatively speaking. Beethoven’s Ninth needs no introduction, but suffice to say, the quality of this interpretation will not have added to its fan base.
Mediocrity was set from the opening movement – with brash strings and bitty wind episodes. The melodies didn’t sing and the accompaniment suffered a crippling superiority complex. The development was utterly devoid of meaning, with little characterization and nothing to enhance the tonal exploration, which inevitably left us with an unexciting fortissimo D major conclusion that inspired neither terror nor awe.
Not even a presto marking in the second movement Scherzo could distract from the string-wind imbalance and emotional dearth. The violin articulations were lazy and the dynamic range was subdued. The trio wavered meekly between cantabile wind passages and hesitant cello lines. One hoped for some respite in the beautiful Adagio, but one hardly noticed the variations go by – they passed from one instrument to the next with little emotion and far less conviction.
According to Charles Rosen, the fourth and final movement is a “symphony within a symphony”: on this occasion, a deeply unappealing thought, judging by the previous movements. To add to this potential insult was the fact that the originally scheduled soprano and mezzo were replaced at the last minute.
For a movement that celebrates the universal fellowship of humanity in joy – and not in cacophony – the compositional intent fell by the wayside. The opening fanfare burst and subsequent rejection of each of the opening of each of the previous movements was a sanguine affair. The orchestra was staid and depressing.
Enter the bass-baritone’s ironic “Oh friends, not these sounds! Rather let us strike up more pleasing and joyful ones!” with wide-vibratoed warbling and broken lines thanks to a heave and a puff summoning every word. Then the tenor who was, thankfully, barely audible and a choir whose screaming match sounded positively amateurish.
Beethoven’s Ninth has been called many things – The Choral, The Symphony of Joy, etc. This performance inaugurated another: The Catastrophe.