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 Bach / Stokowski, Berg, Brahms:  Viviane Hagner (violin), BBC National Orchestraof Wales / Thierry Fischer (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 2.10.2009 (GPu)

Bach (orchestrated by Stokowski) Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565
Berg  Violin Concerto
Brahms  Symphony No.1

Friday 2nd of October 2009 was probably unique in the annals of Cardiff’s musical life. There surely cannot have been a previous evening when two major works by Alban Berg simultaneously received professional performances of high quality at different venues in the city. As I was listening to Berg’s violin concerto in St. David’s Hall in the centre of Cardiff, down by the sea no less a person than the editor of Seen and Heard was listening to Wozzeck in the Millennium Centre. Those of us in St. David’s were spared the blood (and the baked beans) of Wozzeck and were rewarded with a very fine performance of Berg’s last completed work.

Before that we were ‘treated’ (and it is a kind of musical ‘treat’) to Leopold Stokowski’s 1927 orchestration of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. Admitting to a fondness for Stokowski’s Bach is perhaps not to damn oneself so comprehensively as was once the case, but it is still the kind of admission – like confessing that one is a devotee of Australian soap operas or claiming that Blue Nun is the best wine in the world – that may cast doubts on the speaker’s good taste. Still, so long as we don’t imagine that Stokowski’s orchestrations are anything more than entertaining variations on a superior original, in which an inflated rhetoric replaces real poetry, they are a kind of technically accomplished entertainment. Certainly Fischer and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales seemed to relish the rich textures, the blazes of sound, the tension between the strict baroque form (to which Stokowski adheres, there being no additional parts and no cuts) and the lushness with which it is clothed. Only the use he makes of the harp seems to me a serious lapse of judgement on Stokowskis part, but not so much so as to stop this being an exhilarating opening to the evening.

In a very obvious sense, Stokowski’s orchestration reworks Bach. So, in a less blatant sense, does Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, with its variations, in its closing adagio, on Bach’s funeral chorale ‘Es its genug’. It is perhaps appropriate to remind ourselves here of the text (Franz Joachim Burmeister) that Bach actually set:

Es ist genug,
Herr, wenn es dir gefällt,
so spanne mich doch aus.
Mein Jesus kömmt!
Nun gute Nacht, o Welt!
Ich fahr ins Himmelshaus,
ich fahre sicher hin mit Frieden;
Mein feuchter Jammer bleibt darnieden.
Es ist genug!

It is enough,
Lord, when it is pleasing to you,
then grant me release.
May my Jesus come!
Now good night, o world.
I am going to heaven’s house,
I go confidently from here with joy;
my dismal sorrow remains down below.
It is enough!

(Text and translation from the Bach Cantatas Website:

Berg’s concerto – subtitled ‘To the Memory of an Angel’ – was written in response to the death of the 18 year old Manon (‘Mutzi’) Gropius. Berg uses the violin as a kind of dramatic monologue for Manon, so that in the adagio we might imagine her ‘speaking’ these words. Berg’s closing music, indeed, speaks eloquently of “heaven’s house” and of “release”. Here, as elsewhere, in the concerto Viviane Hagner was a very eloquent soloist, her somewhat dark tone beautifully expressive, her reading of the work shot through with an almost painful poignancy. She – and Fischer – made this a work of prayer and pain, a poetic apprehension of death and an evocation of counterpoising memories of youth and beauty, of considerable power. The orchestral accompaniment in the opening andante was handled with great delicacy and Fischer was everywhere alert to the remarkable subtlety of Berg’s use of instrumental colour, both in the passages which employ the full orchestra and in the many exquisite passages where a variety of small chamber-music-like instrumental groups take over. The moment when part two of the work (the allegro) begins with an explosion on brass and timpani which shatters the relative optimism – not least in the ghostly waltz Viennese waltz and the Carinthian Ländler of the allegretto which closes part one – of the first part was properly shattering, its anguish well-nigh overwhelming.

After the interval, in Brahms’s first symphony we had another work in which the music of the past was revisited. Where Stokowski and, in his very different fashion, Berg seem to have been at ease with their musical inheritance, comfortable in the reuse they make of it, Brahms was a classic case of what the literary critic Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence”, an artist inhibited by the ambiguity of his relationship to the work of his predecessors, particularly those he most admires. Brahms was, of course, quite explicit about the ways in which the ‘presence’ of Beethoven inhibited him. In 1870 he told Herman Levi that he “would never write a symphony”, saying “You’ve no idea what it feels like with such a giant marching behind you”. Six years later, however, Brahms had completed his first symphony (he had been working on it, on and off, for some twenty years). One way in which he faces up to the looming presence of Beethoven is by the use, in the last movement, of a tune which has an unmistakable resemblance to the tune of the ‘Ode to Joy’. Elsewhere there are clear allusions to Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Brahms, in effect, concedes that no symphonist of his generation could ignore Beethoven – better to acknowledge the presence of the earlier genius and then engage in an explicit dialogue with his work. Not, of course, that Beethoven’s is the only presence form musical history in this symphony. It has been pointed out, surely correctly, that in the slow introduction that begins the whole work, the pulsing bass notes and the emphatic timpani seem to allude to the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion – Bach was here, too, as he was in the first two works on this concert programme.

Thierry Fischer’s generally very impressive reading of the symphony began in beautifully measured fashion, passion held on a fairly tight rein in the introduction. In the ensuing allegro the rhythms were always energetic, avoiding the rather elephantine insistence that characterises some performances of the movement, but perhaps also falling just a little short of the sheer intensity of heroic struggle that marks the very greatest performances. The second movement, marked andante sostenuto, had a quite grave elegance, its dignified lyricism played with a pleasing spaciousness in which the lowers strings, in particular, did something like full justice to Brahms’s writing. In the third movement there was a relaxed and genial air to the allegretto, but the passion of the B major trio seemed to anticipate something of what was to come – indeed, one had a sense that Fischer had a very clear vision of the overriding unity of the symphony. In the finale the emotionally turbulent C minor introduction developed earlier hints and looked back to the darker moments of the first movement. Now, indeed, the contestation of darkness and radiance becomes more explicit, and was well articulated by Fischer and the orchestra; the so-called ‘Alpine horn’ theme, cushioned on trombones, persuasively offered the possibility of a way out of conflict, and its fading away the variation on Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ theme struck – here very credibly – a new note of confidence. Both Brahms’s ‘confrontation’ with Beethoven and the contestations within the music of the symphony itself – here begin a process of release, of liberation. This performance was perhaps at its very best in its working through that extended process; struggle and contest may not have disappeared but the predominant direction of movement was now clear and the note of affirmation, of something like ‘joy’ and ‘victory’ was struck with great rhythmic drive and energy, to close in a kind of triumphal dance.

The orchestra was generally on very good form, and Thierry Fischer lived up to his own high standards, on an evening which enabled us to her intelligent and accomplished performances of two masterpieces (and Stokowski’s Bach!). Where would the wise Bergophile have been – in St.David’s Hall or in the Millennium Centre?

Glyn Pursglove 

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