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 PROM 59 - Schubert, Schubert/Golijov, Mahler: Dawn Upshaw (soprano); Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich/David Zinman. Royal Albert Hall, 29.8. 2009 (CC)

This was beautiful, imaginative programming for the Zurich orchestra’s Prom. If the performance standard did not match up, the concert nevertheless presented stimulating fare.

Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture began the evening, reminding us of the Tonhalle’s lovely, warm sound (as well as reminding us of the Swiss connection with time – it began at 7pm on the dot). Balancing the warmth of the strings, hard-sticked timpani shot through the texture. Woodwind were delightful; the allegro theme was suave in the extreme. But there were caveats: ensemble, in particular, was not always exact (wind and first violins in particular).

Dawn Upshaw has collaborated several times with Osvaldo Golijov (born 1960), including on the popular Ayre (DG 477 5414). On this occasion Upshaw presented the UK Premiere of Golijov’s short cycle, She Was Here (2008). Golojov takes four songs: “Wandrers Nachtlied”. “Nun wer die Sehnsucht kennt”, “Das sie hier gewesen” and “Nacht und Träume”. The themes, then, are love and longing, night and dream. Golijov’s orchestrations are subtle yet shed substantial light onto the originals. The opening of the first movement contains a silvery sound of two triangles, pianissimo and tremolando (at first I thought it was an electronically-generated sound). Particularly impressive in this first song was Golijov’s use of chalumeau clarinets to underpin the words “Warte nur”. Here, Upshaw was mesmeric, her voice a joy to experience, her concentration complete right from the start.

“Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” is marked by lighter scoring (interestingly, a solo trumpet links the final two stanzas), and it moves straight into “Das sie hier gewesen”. The most beautiful moment of the performance was Upshaw’s perfectly pitched entry at the beginning of “Nacht und Träume”. Golijov underlines the slight poetic disturbance at “Rufen wenn der Tag erwacht” (Crying out when day wakes) memorably. The cycle was premiered in Minnesota in April last year. It is, I would suggest, only a matter of time before a recording appears. I do hope so – maybe with other Golijov orchestrations?

The Mahler Fourth Symphony found both Zinman and Upshaw entering – Upshaw prefers to listen to the entire preface to her heavenly song from the back of the orchestra: much better than having the soprano enter before the slow movement and then have the audience wonder whether to applaud or not.

Zinman’s Fourth (a symphony he has recorded, with soprano Luba Orgonasova on RCA 88697 16852-2) is a generally restrained affair. I like the big ritardando right at the very beginning, and his approach emphasises the Schubertian tenderness of the symphony. And it is true, also, that stark juxtapositions tend not to work too well in the Albert Hall, where borders can be blurred.

The first movement gained in cohesiveness as it went on, but the corners of shabby ensemble encountered in Rosamunde recurred. Moments of note include Julia Becker’s solo violin, a superb horn solo (Ivo Gass) and a wonderfully managed Luftpause close to movement end. The flowing speed of the second movement accurately mirrored Mahler’s entreaty: “Im gemächlicher Bewegung. Ohne Hast” (At a leisurely pace. Without haste), and Julia Becker’s solo (now on her retuned violin) confirmed earlier impressions.

The slow movement held one of the dangers of live performance. Zinman’s spell obviously worked too well for one audience member, whose behemoth-like snores resonated right down into the arena and beyond (can you hear them on the relay, I wonder?) and for whom all attempts at resuscitation were in vain. A great shame, as this was in some ways the finest movement. Zinman was completely unhurried, and the slow, long lines were intrinsically song-like. A pity that the more unsettling moments were not more akin to glimpses into the abyss.

Upshaw’s voice, though, is perfect for the finale. Her technique allows for magnificent ease (listen to her way with neighbour notes on the word ‘himmlischen’ in the first line.) Most notable was the feeling of narration Upshaw lent to the experience. One shame here was that the passage immediately before the magical line “Kein Musik ist ja auf Erden” lost its impact, lessening the import of the moment - Upshaw dried up a little at her entry, also). More noise, too – a great thwack of what might have been a door shutting (decidedly audible on the broadcast) right near the work’s close. Nevertheless, the finale was by far the greatest success of the Mahler.

One encore: a characterful account of an Azerbaijani love song, the finale of Berio’s Folksongs I. Upshaw and Zinman had been performing the Folksongs in Edinburgh just before this Prom. (see review)

Overall, I had expected more. The warm orchestral sound, the individual excellence of soloists were all there, but the concert never reached heights anywhere near exalted.

Colin Clarke


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