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.

Monday, May 30, 2011

DR Kultur: Bamberg SO, Jonathan Nott LIVE. Mysteries of the night - all toward clamorous blaze of day. Ives Three Places. Mahler Seven. 24.5.11.

Jonathan Nott continues quite a successful Mahler cycle both in concert in Bamberg's warm Keilberth-Saale and on disc with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra Nott now has playing comparably well to numerous leading orchestras in Europe. His Mahler first caught my attention with a Fourth played by Bamberg at the 2006 BBC Proms, turning this music on its dark side while framing such with strong linear and textural clarity.

If any previous Mahler interpreters serve as example to Nott, it may be Pierre Boulez; differences too between both stand out. Simultaneously arguably most controversial of Boulez’s Mahler interpretations, favorite of mine from among them is of the Seventh Symphony. The slightly heavy, yet dry – near end of the peak of the Dohnanyi era – approach to Romantic music, Mahler included, of Cleveland balances well with Boulez’s ironic, dour wit, fire for the Seventh – brisk pace notably through second Nachtmusik. Getting past quasi-Brucknerian terracing of contrasting episodes, buildup through the first movement, Boulez and Nott both recall to mind Hermann Scherchen’s way with Mahler. Especially memorable his 1965 Toronto broadcast of this (especially for having popped it on a first time one hour after pseudo-Furtwangler slog Christoph Eschenbach made long ago here through a stellar cast Don Giovanni (Mattila, der Walt, Thomas Allen, Fleming as Elvira, Cachemaille).

Boulez’s interpretation of the Seventh repeated over PBS last year recorded live from Chicago; some of Boulez’s more obvious interpretative decisions got smoothed out, making all seem less decisive, driven home than before from Cleveland (on DGG - though on wit, risk-taking still a bit shy next to Scherchen).

Bamberg now certainly has an orchestra for Mahler with which to reckon. Burnished melos from their winds, buttery lower strings - good if not quite alone definitive qualities, Nott has helped make distinctive toward utterly specific expressive, interpretative purposes. A pervasive nostalgic air characterizing the Mahler Seventh, elusively so for most notably the second Nachtmusik Nott had his forces fully intimate - revealing how in Mahler’s sonorities, conceptualization thereof, some of the bottom has fallen out – hollowness, exposed gaps left in its wake. Gone is some of an acerbic, (proto-)neo-classical, practically Stravinskian quality like from Boulez, but not completely – instead more subtly reckoned intimation of the same. What has been (exaggeratedly) assessed as clinical detachment characterizing the Boulez is equally revealing. Pool out of which Mahler draws references to the past is deep. What references occur, with what detachment, irony, distortion, other device Mahler applies gain their elusive, ephemeral quality thereby – with no single exemplary way to illustrate this.

Nott opened this program with masterpiece by comparable genius transcendentalist Charles Ives – Three Places in New England – Mahler more sophisticatedly effective at it in his Seventh, Ninth, Das Lied than in his Third Symphony. All one might have sought from Nott and his forces playing Ives was a little more earthiness than emerged here. Mahler admired Ives to extent he carried back a copy of Ives’s Third Symphony back to Europe with him, with it in mind getting it performed there. Nott’s grasp of Ives’s music seems complete, except perhaps in one area – its frequently brash qualities, utter plethora of vernacular sources. Swagger for middle movement comedic Putnam’s Camp – study, likely, for large Ives Fourth Symphony scherzo - its march rhythms from ‘Marching Through Georgia to the British Grenadiers - was good, if less uninhibited than might be ideal. Deeply intoned syncopations, limned by harmonics above, provided broad shape for long moment of stillness, for it rapt intensity as well.

Diaphanous, languid sense of mystery to open most extended picture among the three, the ‘St Gaudens in Boston Commons’ was complete – all groping to form out of several intervals good intimation of Afro-American ‘spiritual’ – deeply expressive Bamberg woodwinds helping carry to satisfying closure idea deeply suggested here. Empathy Ives feels for plight of black regiment during the Civil War, musical comment on such is hardly equaled elsewhere. Direct simplicity from principal chairs compensated well for incidental Bambergeois smoothing out of more extravagantly scored passages. Stretto from differing strands of material to combine, also clash with each other Nott supplied rhythmic shape, acuity, even some earthiness from his strings – if intermittently less freedom than is preferable.

Tempos for all three pieces were slightly slower than usual. The most evocative piece of the three, and abstract, the Housatonic at Stocbrdge – found Nott the most at home with what he confronted here. The textural density of this music and its subtly compressed quality are such Nott can not anymore find daunting. The Romantic appeal of landscape both pointedly and evocatively described in words (simply written down, not performed at all) found Nott completely at ease – comparable to what a mature Bartok or Ligeti accomplished years later – with interwoven melismatic chromatic descant very flexibly, limning broad melodic line – fully evoking Nature, inhaling mists all about. Stretto toward eventually arriving loud dissonant climax formed very effectively organically from what preceded it – with most inhibition at last put aside. Out of the swirls, rushes of the Housatonic might form a lake comparable to what next composer listed might have then rowed or swam across.

Nott, oars ready to traverse lake about, invited his players to openly, warmly resonate all before them, clarinets sticking out to further enhance color, warmth - stringent upper winds and strings to profile craggy rock, cliffs aloft. Remainder of the way Nott marked deliberately, with strings, winds, bellicose trumpets on cusp of breaking out, anticipating the Exposition. Equine upbeats to proceeding march step got vividly, lightly marked, brightly lifting sense of forward motion going. Natural shaping of rubato, sonorities underneath, eschewing unmarked slowdown, provided ascending second theme superb elasticity. Marking of tuba line helped tighten up return of the first theme. Reminiscence of second theme semitone lower (B Minor) occurred with continual forward motion - pizzicato, woodwind cries eerily punctuating the night air.

Atmosphere remained spectral for coolly approached strands of first theme - marked timpani accenting then spurring all on forward. In the hands of somebody less adept, eschewing sturm und drang here might suffice to throw off center of gravity – no issue for Nott. Pastoral episode entered all forest mercurial - as though lost, from ‘another world.’ Full flowering out of ‘sehr breit’ reprise of second theme, for refusal to distend it earlier had it emerge fresher than normally one can anticipate. High entrance on violins getting transition to recapitulation going had Nott observing the ‘a tempo’ written in there instead of – too commonly – docking it. An earthier, lustier vigor then arose through especially the strings, forest immersed fire then coursing way through the rest, picking up most sturm und drang along the way, but without excessive bombast or empty banality Mahler already provided the means to avoid.

Nott favored, compared with fleeter Boulez, moderate pace for Nachtmusik I. Contrast of sonorities, still allowing much acerbity, fit here warmer approximation of Knaben Wunderhorn motifs. Gradual at building atmosphere, all naturally opened out - toward march refrain in violins being cadenced on rattle (trills) on low register clarinets. With moderate breeze coursing through first trio section, Nott became attentive to dotted rhythms being precise contrasting with how violins drowsily spin out the rest. Groping lower strings enveloped then remotely placed reprise of main section. Spectral second trio (F Minor), with ‘irdisches Leben’ plaintive winds purposefully came off acrid, less sublime. Light descending terraced winds helped dissemble memory of cellos’ klezmer refrain to same idea,, all preparing surreptitious tone for brief transition back to forthright refrain, despondently so. Reprise of first trio passed by more urgently – as though intended fleeting, passé thereby. Main march motifs made final sheepish return - false or precarious step always right around the corner - with all then spinning off into a void.

Nott became closest to Boulez on central scherzo - ‘Schattenhaft.’ It became distinctively so for Nott with less projected, more resonant Bamberg forces to make stand out its garish, acrid, shuddering occurring throughout, then to more potently extrude to abet ubiquitous menace, do greater harm from within. Measured step starting out was perfectly adept, followed by blunt sudden capture of foreground for descending rapid run in dark woodwinds – as having emerged out of nowhere. Icy, tremolo like runs in the strings sharply cut through mists, nebulae about. Strings then attacked waltz refrain with schmaltzy, confident abandon. Insistence to avoid oboe led trio turning mawkish Nott staged by having violins eerily match in their descending trailing off wiry tone from the oboes. Besotted accenting from viola solo Nott made to infect violins and timpani. Nott prevented all through bumpy ride back into scherzo from stabilizing until plaintively reply from oboes in minor-key Neapolitan. Hole dug out of warm Bamberg sonorities only grew deeper, still more so from then on.

Fragility within warm glow Nott had infuse Nachtmusik II became quality less to forefront than subtly pervading it all instead. Obvious sensation got provided by pungently marking this music’s well varied acrid dissonances, but all as though having percolated out of the twilit Romantic glow. Even while fully inhaling nocturnal fragrance all about, there was more than just this means by which Nott set up some aesthetic distance; Mahler’s music does here itself. Nowhere did doing so provide greater dividends than with Nott’s shaping of song like middle section – no obvious places excessively lingered over – with natural rubato rendering line its normal shape. Comments midway through the trio section maintained their reticent, dour character intact. Reprise of ‘’Traumerei’ opening enhanced overall relaxed air, followed, contrasted then by stringent push through violins’ led stretto, fleshing out high and dry their internal dissonances – without breaking line. Atmosphere about got deeply absorbed during process of all fading away – all in beautifully rounded perspective – anticipatory as much as nostalgic.

Conventional way with similar finale to the Fifth Symphony is to reward its formal complexity with broad pacing, providing all its fugue and chorale a Brucknerian weight, portentousness – such as one encounters on the old Barbirolli recording. Treating similarly the finale to the Seventh is judged to be riskier, given its brightly lit color, its surface wise more obvious banality – its superficially light weight harmonically and extensive parody, Rapid, tight interlocking of harmonic progressions working their way through Nott invoked toward working a spell over all his players – with the Stravinsky of Petrouchka, Symphony in C - pan-diatonicism with the latter - imminent.

Pacing things broadly, Nott, increasingly interwove much subtle terracing into Mahler’s scoring – confident to expose where Mahler has intentionally left gaps, places where voicing does not get doubled properly. Lift to ebullience, all pomp, the overtly festive character here hardly ever got minimized at all. Brass and strings strongly competed amongst themselves at serving up lusty fervor to Meistersinger and other popular tune refrains. Suspected academic quality to Nott’s interpretation, instead of denying the comedy infusing all this, deepened it, provided it more savor than crudely underlining it can. Busoni’s music fleetingly came to mind, ‘’higher knowledge’ to be derived thereof, and then with for instance widely spaced low trombone underpinning ‘sextuplet’ spinning forth laendler in the strings, the first especially of the Ninth’s two central scherzos.

Shock of what gets encountered earlier found at last rich fulfillment in treating the finale to the Seventh with much deserved respect, thus making first movement ‘caravan’ episode toward the end sound less like location where things might have suddenly derailed, to instead psychologically have been likely eventually all along.

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