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Schumann, Manoury: Bavarian State Orchestra, Kent Nagano (conductor) National Theatre, Munich 27.11.2007 (JFL)

Schumann: Concert Piece for Four Horns, op.86
Manoury: Abgrund – pour grand orchestre
Schumann: Symphony No.4, op.120 (original version)

Three pillars of sound – powerful but all less so than one expects and receding where the ears expect the thundering climax: that is the opening statement of Philippe Manoury’s “Abgrund – pour grand orchestre” which was given its world premiere in the Third Akademiekonzert of the Bavarian State Orchestra under Kent Nagano on Monday, November 26th.

This attitude of ‘not-quite-full-out’ and taken-back peaks lends a restful, relaxed feeling to the work – commissioned by Kent Nagano’s Bavarian State Opera and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal : which stands rather in contrast to the bustle of notes and the excessive percussion batteries employed by the Tulle (France) born Manoury who teaches composition at the University of California, San Diego.

Perhaps because of the ‘pillars’ in “Abgrund”, I thought more of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony during the performance than I did of any recent modern work – so many of which also feature absurd arrays of percussion. But if on the surface,  Manoury is similarily obsessed with rhythm-and noise-makers like high maracas, cow bells, wood blocks, claves, low rattles, gongs, xylophones, a “Mahler-box” [1], and 18 other percussion instruments (not counting the piano), he mercifully knows how to use them in ways far more discriminating than his contemporaries beholden to one bongo-frenzy after another. He deserves lauding for that alone.

“Abgrund” is a work that will neither disturb nor annoy; it is a pleasant and perhaps harmless string of dissonant semi-climaxes, little jolts, and resting phases. It has an invigorating effect, is easy on  concentration, and is altogether a work I’d not mind hearing on many more occasions. (Admittedly two ladies next to me felt quite differently: One was loudly wondering – mid piece – when it would be finally over. The other thought the subsequent Schumann Symphony not worth the Manoury trial.)

I cannot quite tell why my ears responded so instinctively positively to “Abgrund”, a fact that quite annoys me. Perhaps Philippe Manoury hit the right mix between shallow and deep, melodic and dissonant, placating and strident, stasis and progress, simplicity and complexity. The steady run-up—stop—tighten—burst—relax scheme may not be novel at all, but it paid dividends for me: so well in fact,  that the work might not have needed its full 20+ minutes to make the intended impact. As it was, the rather quiet and calm,  though Hammerblow-interrupted, long tail of the frenzied mid-section reminded again of Mahler. This time of the description of Mahler’s symphonies as bearing a resemblance to the guest who already stands in the door, parting, but won’t quite leave, always finding another point of discussion.

Before the ladies had to sit through the IRCAM-trained Manoury’s work, they were mollified with a first dose of Robert Schumann – his Bach-inspired Konzertstück for Four Horns. Under Kent Nagano, the orchestra turned in a performance that was concise and of swift freshness. Though the winds struggled to be heard and the orchestral  tone was often close to shrill and rarely very nice, as an ensemble it was as agile as imaginable. The result was a strangely modern sound (especially since Schumann very rarely sounds modern, much less ‘sleek’) but not unpleasantly so. The four horn players (Johannes Dengler, Franz Draxinger, Rainer Schmitz, Maximilian Hochwimmer) had individual moments of glory but without being exciting  (or  especially accurate) as a group.

Schumann’s Fourth Symphony is neither his fourth nor a late work – except that Schumann revised this work from 1841 (technically his second symphony)  in 1852. When this somewhat unusual work premiered, it was not so much received badly as was simply ignored: the same concert had featured the overshadowing mega-event of Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt appearing on stage together.

Hearing the work in its original form – which is largely a matter of stripping it of Schumann’s own re-orchestration – was very worthwhile. It was good, too, to see it  noted as the ‘original version’, lest I have attributed its  leanness, lighter,  unmannered, and sunnier qualities all to Kent Nagano’s revealingly brilliant conducting.

The inner luster and the gloom, doom, and heft of the version generally known is gone – and without harm to the four movements-in-one - where three unfulfilled movements lead attacca (without break or pause) into the next and then on into the finale which ties the loose ends together and provides the resolution for all that came before. Nagano, whose Beethoven in the first of these ‘Academy Concerts’ was something short of joyless butchery, showed some mechanical spots here too, but in all that is light and legato or soft and slow, he had all the abilities that one could swear he’d be lacking,  given the loveless result of some loud and fast passages. The lightness of this version of the Symphony met with Nagano’s accuracy to produce  a very fine result, seemingly appeasing even the critical ladies in the audience.


 Jens F Laurson



[1] The ‘Hammerblow-instrument’ built for and used in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.

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