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Nicolai, Bartók, Puccini, Liszt: James Ehnes (viola), Miriam Allan (soprano), Ladies of the CBSO Chorus, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 26.2.2011 (MC)


Nicolai: Overture: The Merry Wives of Windsor (1846/7)

Bartók: Viola Concerto (1945, completed Serly 1949)

Puccini: Intermezzo from Suor Angelica (1918)

Liszt: Dante Symphony (1855/6)


This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of Franz Liszt’s birth. Although best known as the greatest virtuoso pianist of all time Liszt’s genius extended far beyond piano keys. A highly prolific and versatile composer Liszt produced around a thousand works covering most genres including an opera. About half of Liszt’s enormous output is piano compositions. Liszt was also a major influence as a progressive composer whose music has fallen out favour with the exception of a quantity of piano scores. A giant in the history of nineteenth century music both

conductor Gianandrea Noseda and Guardian journalist Tim Ashley agreed at the pre-concert talk that Liszt strongly influenced the music of Wagner; Tchaikovsky; Mahler; Rachmaninov and Richard Strauss. This bicentennial year will undoubtedly trigger a reassessment of Liszt’s music.

At the Bridgewater Liszt champion Noseda, who has recorded the composer’s entire orchestral music, conducted the A Symphony to Dante’s Divine Comedy. As the centrepiece of the evening’s concert it was pleasing to have the rare opportunity to hear this marvellous and neglected work. Liszt’s music is currently unfashionable, with his orchestral scores standing at the fringe of the repertoire while the Dante Symphony itself presents problems of impracticability and cost. Sometimes taking over fifty minutes in performance the Dante Symphony calls for a large orchestra and women’s choir that is only heard for around seven minutes.

Liszt became greatly inspired by Dante’s epic poem the Divine Comedy and wrote the Dante Symphony which is in effect an extended symphonic poem. A devout Roman Catholic, Liszt felt that with Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven he had discovered a route to sanctification. The opening movement Inferno commenced with liberal brass writing of dark menace as terrible as any ferocious storm. No half measures here for Noseda whipping up to a magnificent and voluble Lisztian frenzy with a convincing depiction of howling gales. A solo for bass clarinet introduced a calmer episode played mainly on the deep and richly timbred cello and double basses. A percussion burst announced the stern and sinister coda of wholehearted Brucknerian power and volume.

The second movement of the Dante Symphony is the Purgatorio. The yielding and tender opening with its prominent oboe part against shimmering strings transcended to an otherworldly vision of time and space. I was struck by Noseda’s control of the shifting and ascending layers of texture like various time zones played quite remarkably by the strings. It was Wagner, the dedicatee of the score, who persuaded Liszt to set the Latin Magnificat rather than write a separate Paradiso movement. Here the mood emerged as lighter, of a crystalline quality, to introduce the opening notes of the celestial chorus placed high up in the left gallery of the auditorium. The short but divine part for soprano soloist emerged from a high position at the rear of the stage. Noseda brought the score to a tender conclusion with a hushed calm and reflection.

Noseda got the concert got off to an uplifting start with Otto Nicolai’s overture to the opera The Merry Wives of Windsor. The opera, a version of Shakespeare’s comedy, was Nicolai’s only success with the première in Berlin coming poignantly only two months before his untimely death. A solemn start soon gave way to a merry and exuberant mood. Conducted and played with great enthusiasm and spontaneity the brief waltz-like section was done delightfully.

Bartók left his Viola Concerto incomplete at his death in 1945. Later the composer’s sketches were reconstructed and orchestrated by pupil Tibor Serly. There are other versions of the concerto but the Serly edition is the one usually heard. James Ehnes, no stranger to the Bridgewater hall, swopped his usual violin for the viola for this performance. Proficient he was too, providing a yearning rather nostalgic quality to the moderato movement and a dreamy expressiveness in the adagio. Robust in the rondo finale a sort of moto perptetuo with Hungarian folk rhythms Ehnes underlined the curious Scottish episode. Today Bartók’s score is one of the most popular concertos in the viola repertoire. As an alternative a programme like this could easily have stood the inclusion of a lesser known score such as Stanley Bates’ successfully revived Viola Concerto (1944/6).

Surprisingly at the start of the second half Noseda announced that he would play the brief Intermezzo from Puccini’s opera Suor Angelica. In the opera the repented nun Sister Angelica moves from Purgatory to Paradise, hence the connection to Liszt’s Dante Symphony. Attractive, if rather trifling, the Intermezzo served as a refreshing sorbet before the Liszt Dante Symphony.

Gianandrea Noseda has done a tremendous job with the BBC Philharmonic. Providing exciting concerts of a consistently high standard is his trademark and this was certainly one of those. With Liszt’s Dante Symphony so marvellously interpreted it certainly was an exhilarating night.

Michael Cookson

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