Karnéus, van Steen and BBC NOW perform valedictory works by Strauss and Bruckner

Strauss, Bruckner: Katarina Karnéus (mezzo), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Jac van Steen (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 27.5.2011 (GPu)

Strauss, Four Last Songs
Bruckner, Symphony No.9

Advertised as ‘Last Thoughts’, this concert juxtaposed two works written in the sure knowledge of the close approach of death, two works first published and played posthumously. For all its melancholy, there is in Strauss’s work an underlying sense of acceptance and consolation; death is the natural end of a long journey. Joseph von Eichendorff’s ‘Im Abendrot’ (At Sunset) was the first of these four lyrics to be set by Strauss, and its final stanza articulates much in the tone and meaning of the work as published (how far Strauss himself conceived of the four songs as a set remains debatable):

O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot!
Wie sind wir wandermüde –
Ist dies etwa der Tod?

(O boundless, tranquil peace!
So deep in the sunset!
How weary we are of our wandering –
Is this perhaps death?)

There is little obvious nor easy consolation to be found in Bruckner’s Ninth, written over the last nine years of Bruckner’s life, years marked by declining health both physical and mental, of liver and stomach complaints, of loneliness, and towards the end by periods in which his mind wandered from the matter in hand, by neuroses of various kinds and by increasing physical weakness. Three movements were completed; sketches (many of them now lost) for the finale existed at his death. The three movements that we have are full of anguish and conflict; though shot through at times with light and certainty, this is very far from being the music of quiet comfort and release.

Katerina Karnéus was the ever-welcome soloist in the Four Last Songs (she has always been a Cardiff favourite since her 1995 victory in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition). Along with van Steen and the Orchestra, she captured much of the retrospective, valedictory quality of these songs. The singing of Karnéus was strong and authoritative and there were moments of exquisite beauty and poignancy, as at “Vogelsang” in ‘Frühling’, “sterbenden” in ‘September” and a radiantly lovely account of the third stanza of ‘Beim Schlafengehen’. The work of the orchestra was generally excellent – notably the contributions of Principal Horn Tim Thorpe and Lesley Hadfield’s expressive account of the violin solo in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’. The extraordinary moment at the end of ‘Im Abendrot’, when the words are over and the horn’s quotation from ‘Tod und Verklärung’ precedes some ethereal bird-song, was very well-handled; earlier parts of this final song had disappointed just a little, perhaps because of its relative lack of intimacy. But this was, taken whole, a good performance and a very largely satisfying interpretation.

In Strauss’ songs the imagery is predominantly of the natural world – the two larks and their song as just mentioned, the ‘starry night’ of ‘Beim Schlafengehen’, the ‘Bäumen’ (trees) and ‘blauen Lüften’ (blue skies) of ‘Frühling’, the garden, the flowers, the roses and the “hohen Akazienbaum” of ‘September’. The very titles of the four songs (Spring, September, Going to Sleep, At Sunset) suggest just how much death in these songs is understood (musically as well as verbally) as part of the natural cycle, seasonal and diurnal alike. Where Bruckner is concerned it has become something of a commonplace to talk of his symphonies as ‘Cathedrals of Sound’ (who originated this phrase?). Insofar as it points to the religious affiliations and purposes of the music, and to its sheer scale, the phrase contains an obvious truth. But I wonder if it doesn’t also steer us away too easily from things of importance in the music, especially where this last, unfinished symphony is concerned? Cathedrals are (to generalise) symmetrical; their forms/structures are essentially predictable (though they way those forms are realised may be almost infinitely); one knows, as it were, where to find the high altar immediately on entry to a cathedral one hasn’t previously visited. But this last symphony of Bruckner’s is anything but symmetrical or formally predictable. The first movement is full of misleading formal clues and unexpected twists and turns; the second is a bit more predictable formally speaking but, though described as a scherzo it is more schizoid than scherzoid in mood; the remarkable adagio never clearly establishes a tonic key until its coda and eludes easy formal analysis throughout. Rather than an architectural metaphor, something more natural (in the highest senses of the term) seems called for with this music. Coleridge’s famous distinction between mechanical (essentially “predetermined” form, a form, for example, established as an influential pattern or a set of artistic conventions) and organic form (one which is “innate”, which “shapes as it develops itself from within” to quote Coleridge) seems relevant. The fluidity, the abruptness of transition which characterise Bruckner’s music; its yoking together of violence and beauty, strength and gentleness; its avoidance of mere regularity – all of these seem to associate it more with the energies of nature, of a nature through which God speaks and through which man can seek to hear His voice, than with man-made architecture (however spiritual its intention and achievement). The relative limitation of this performance (one which I was very glad to have heard) and of many another of this symphony, was that the sheer manic, questing instability of the music was captured less well than its moments of (yes, let’s say it) cathedral-like stability and certainty. Jac van Steen’s was an intelligent and lucid performance and the orchestra, as so often of late, gave evidence of its very real qualities. Yet the last few percent of the work were missing, that final step from the good to the great, from the fine to the extraordinary wasn’t taken. Still, Cardiff audiences (and the audience was rather sadly thin on the night) ought to think themselves fortunate to have the opportunity to hear such remarkable music played with such commitment, high competence and thoughtfulness.

Glyn Pursglove