The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

BBC: Halle Orchestra. Markus Stenz - Reflections on varying stages of life. Mahler 4. Schubert. Carolyn Sampson. Manchester (UK).

Markus Stenz’s one other appearance for a complete Mahler symphony cycle at Bridgewater Hall, involving both the Halle and the BBC Philharmonic, continued here with the Fourth. Numerous symphonies in the series are accompanied by including a new work that reflects upon what Mahler symphony, to begin with, is on the program. With the Second, space constraints prevented my mention of Crossing the Alps by Colin Matthews, a choral piece of flexibly shifting bi-tonalities, lasting eight minutes. It all sounded as challenging, compared with really crossing the alps, as technical climbing of sidewalk along north face of Uxbridge Road – for all the effort troupe seen putting into it. Inoffensive but unmemorable was this setting of Wordsworth.

This program, that opened with the original, then discarded second movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, called Blumine (recorded by Ormandy, Ivan Fischer, Mehta, Frank Brieff before, as part of the First), featured as companion to the Fourth - with Franz Schubert’s ‘Einsamkeit’, D. 620, as orchestrated by Henze protégé Detlev Glanert.

The sweet naivete of Blumine made it an ideal opener. Markus Stenz and strings of the Halle made febrile rustle of the breeze that, so facile, ushers in the bel canto melody, that principal trumpet of the Halle sang forth with tartly sweet ardor. What dark currents occur in the middle section of this were well pointed - also well pointed how short-lived they are, with gentle push forward into Neapolitan for relative minor key and then subtonic to the C Major Blumine is in - to reprise main idea in B-Flat Major. After colorfully moving through tertiary related key areas to full blossoming out in C Major, all here just wafted by with fine ease in ascending light, violins to most exquisite close.

‘Einsamkeit’ (“Solitude’) is set to poetry - philosophical testament - by Johan Mayrhofer, bosom buddy of Franz Schubert at the time - Schubert just barely out of his teens. The model of Beethoven’s unusually successful An die ferne Geliebte came to Schubert’s mind – toward his putting together probably his first song cycle - slightly longer than the Beethoven. Each of the six strophes making up this poem – each paired with antistrophe – begins with a heartfelt request, ultimately taken together covering some, figuratively speaking, of what is called the Seven Stages of Man – according to insightful liner notes by Graham Johnson (in Hyperion’s Schubert edition).

Two facts remain for introducing this piece. First of all, one title in ‘Winterreise’ coincides with the name of this song; similarity between that simple piece and this ends there. Paradoxically, this is not quite the best poetry that Schubert ever set to music. Reading it without the mostly inspired music to which it is set can strike one as pedantic, even quite naïve, clichéd. Beethoven, Johnson explains, conformed in what text he chose to more conservative among contemporary tastes than did Schubert in picking Mayrhofer.

Detlev Glanert has settled for pastel colors, smooth contours - more than likely he should have – in orchestrating the Schubert. Otherwise, this is successful work and here got played very well. Mellow lower winds introduce opening scene in an abbey, where we may more conventionally expect brass to more hieratic effect, with narrator, soprano Carolyn Sampson in this instance, pensively reveling in the solitude of abbey life (likely during which Schubert met Mayrhofer). Sampson came across here shade or two too light for singing this, but largely made up for any lack for the covered tone with which she expressed over chromatic harmony the first episode’s pensive thought – verging on deep melancholy. Stenz most effectively underlined trumpets cutting through strings to catch very well the restiveness to characterize the first antistrophe – cause for anxiety the idea of breaking free from abbey life.

Schubert expresses the quest to be active in life and then past another antistrophe to be among mix of good company by most Biedermeier means, so that Glanert is mostly free of fault for not coming up with the most imaginative solution to these two brief strophes, except for, in scoring, missing the hollow tone of repetitiveness and of the text itself toward end of the latter. The antistrophe in-between follows a hearty, naïve march in the winds to take us through moment of pensive daydreaming out to rural landscape, with it audible shepherd’s horn softly replaced by trumpets and flutes within perfectly bucolic air - Sampson’s voice filling things out so well. The yearning Sampson conveyed during third antistrophe, in E-Flat Minor, was most affecting.

Following a romanza (fourth strophe) with Sampson finding ideal bliss to fill out Schubert’s underlining of ‘Liebe’ and seligkeit’, Glanert most effectively has scored, with arch detachment probably the least effective passage of this piece – fourth antristrophe with its thinly inspired bellicose accents. Firm slow cortege on marked dotted rhythms for what followed got very close to as effectively scored. From Sampson for next strophe, while picking up pace of the dotted rhythms, one missed the firmness expected from a deeper voice, toward making felt the stark antiwar protest of the lyrics here. All peacefully opened out with guileless ardor into great contentment found at last in solitude, nature all about - with Glanert having strings undulate the least intrusive lilting barcarolle rhythm which Schubert has had accompany the narrator’s final lines.

Carolyn Sampson was less than perfectly ideal in sustaining legato for such a passage, but feeling for the text, emotional purity and quest for finding as much tonal variety as is feasible all worked to her advantage. She is hardly more at fault to attempt this than Robert Holl or Nathan Berg who take the entire song a third down, and are each mildly too heavy for it, while she has settled for ‘Einsamkeit’s original key.. Stenz here made a consistently most sensitive accompanist, catching so well the willfully shifting moods of this piece, understatedly scored by Detlev Glanert.

Stenz, after interval, then proceeded to make close to a true bucolic romp out of first movement of the Mahler Fourth Symphony, still stopping short of making something two-dimensional or shallow out of this – as for instance did Abbado for DGG thirty years ago. Tempo choices for playing the introduction and reprise thereof were inconsistent here, willfully so, but all working within a context where, as Stenz hears it, everything can sound forth spontaneous and free. One should not more than lightly begrudge Stenz for taking such open liberties. All parody, pomposity, latter including that of the French horn in way he randy-toned went about the quote from Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in the coda, got underlined here with wonderful fervor and intensity - always stopping short of getting self-conscious or excessively breaking line. Harsh muted trumpet, mixed with percussion and flute sonorities rang out in full relief, especially during the Development. Toss-off of music to trail off from quote of upcoming Fifth Symphony opening ideally made the sublimely ephemeral thereof, with slow lilt into recapitulation mid-phrase to follow. The subito piu mosso off the sleigh bells to open the first movement was hardly at all excessive. Parody in underlining Haydn-esque closing theme with hard bumps forward where called for was ideal.

One had throughout the first movement the feeling of musicians being highly well prepared and at once thoroughly, unabashedly enjoying themselves, so simply bringing out this music’s rough edges. Stenz’s interpretation has reminded me here somewhat of Jonathan Nott’s with Bamberg at the Proms several years back – arguable whether more ideally or not - in more of a Romantic filled out sense - yet without shirking any of this music’s frequent asperity or harsh dissonances. Such held true in the macabre scherzo, with sting on high F in G Minor in violins most searing in its main section. Only the ‘ohne hast’ that Mahler marked for the scherzo seemed to get put aside. The most Vienniese lilt otherwise characterized Stenz’s manner, with Lynn Fletcher’s playing demonic fiddle with good arch tone.

Incisively placed muted trumpet staccato arpeggios in reprise of the main section of this contrasted with the lazy gait Stenz gave reprise of the simple laendler trio section that opens out from F Major to, understated by Stenz, idyllic episode in D Major with all deft grace possible. Stenz toward end of final reprise of main section only missed underlining French horn on brief solo to extent he should. Winds, though, explained the going bad of fairy tale only as apologetic for the consequences. Such made, without turning coy, for just the height of badness in confronted odd scenario here.

Schubertian restful poise was found to open ‘Ruhevoll’ - the ‘poco’ in Poco Adagio ideally well observed. Stenz, breathing the lines of this so naturally through Halle strings, eschewed making the utterly sublime out of opening the movement that to 101 strings level can in all truth become far too limned too early on, insipidly so, but not here. All was internalized to extent that one hardly could resent lack of there being much of a slowdown as marked for the first Minore episode in this double variations movement. As episode proceeded, Stenz gradually infused it with deep requisite yearning, expressive depth. Stenz, though seeming slightly restive in moving return to the Maggiore - Mahler only gradually having shifted the pace - beautifully made up for what only by some may be construed wrong by completely waiting for the zuruckhaltend (holding back) to be marked toward end of this episode to observe it. By some standards such strict observation was most unusual; it also proved so refreshing.

Oboe starkly opening second Minor episode in Phyrgian mode G Minor prefigured impassioned outcry in strings in tritone-related C-Sharp Minor with something veering toward Italianate fervor in handing such out so openly.. Stenz then eschewed making too exaggerated - back in Maggiore - the speed-ups to follow, content with pointing the humor of doing so with plentiful detail for point to fully get across. Again, very refreshingly, Mantovani failed to make it through rear or stage door for reprise of Poco adagio, coming upon the grandiose pomposity that follows to ‘open gates of Paradise’, sense of which Stenz clearly on purpose maintained as still seeming at a distance. He most unusually brought out conspicuously an open non-harmonized third/fifth on D (with only fourth below in harps to give it so hollow support) in muted horns, chimed with hollow tone right before bombast to ensue.

In sonorities to follow ‘gates of paradise’ only expressing longing or desire to completely dissolve into the blue, allusion found before to 1950’s dance hall pop very refreshingly did not emerge here. If any moment in Mahler has perhaps resembled something Lawrence Welk so often, this one has. Stenz, with his background in Second Vienna School through Rihm, Stockhausen, Henze, will not allow it.

With that consideration in mind, the ‘himmlische Leben’ finale opened with unforced ease - good pointing of laendler throughout with hard accents on off-beats for touch of roughness or contaminazione made intact. Pace moved breezily forward - without pushing too hard ahead - until final stanza in E Major. Acrid however were the pushed loud ritornelli based upon sleigh bells from opening movement, as Stenz pointed them. Carolyn Sampson found herself vocally on home turf here for sure, keeping innocence of this vision completely with the words themselves, thus refraining from making coy her lines or vocal color. Her voice then filled out for relaxed gait with which Stenz took the final and most sublime stanza that again so warmly brought this symphony to a close.

Here was a Fourth fully attuned to the ‘Wunderhorn’ of Mahler’s early adulthood, with bucolic element infusing it never put away for more sublime heights to be achieved here or anywhere. Accents of what is to follow in Mahler, in his later symphonies, in clearly but gently progressive manner, got fully observed and as unashamed of their dissonances - without having to skewer ensemble balances to get them. By contrast to that was the fully song-like ardor Stenz lent the second theme of the first movement and stark, ebullient lift he gave the jugglers-in-the-temple marcia idea – announced boldly on solo flute early during the Development.

The Halle Orchestra returned in this series with the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies conducted by their music director Mark Elder. During its Barbirolli days, the Halle would most frequently get deduced, perhaps accurately so as being third tier or lower rung second tier. Barbirolli would be taken aback by the stark relief and flexible manner of phrasing Mahler Stenz has availed himself of here. Barbirolli openly shirked music expressing modernism to exceed either that of Schoenberg’s Pelleas, Delius, or Malcolm Arnold. Other than some weakness in the double basses, the Halle is under such men as Elder, Stenz, and Nagano before, an ensemble today most assured, including in twentieth century and progressive repertoire. It now ranks out near front of the line among plethora of second-tier orchestras islands and continent wide.

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