Interesting Choral Concert in Cardiff Fails to Satisfy Completely.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Adams, Beethoven Rebecca Evans (soprano), Hanne Fischer (mezzo), Andrew Kennedy (tenor), Matthew Rose (bass), BBC National Chorus of Wales, Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Choristers of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester Cathedrals, Sound Intermedia, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thierry Fischer (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff 30.9.2011.(GP)

Adams             On the Transmigration of Souls
Beethoven    Symphony No. 9

 This was an interesting piece of programming, but the outcome was a slightly disappointing concert. Putting together Adams’ response to the events of September 11th 2011 and Beethoven’s last completed symphony invited some comparisons (which isn’t to say that these two are works of similar artistic stature …). The essentially organic growth of Beethoven’s Ninth, moving from the relatively dark opening allegro to the light-filled affirmations of the closing movement contrasts with the cyclical nature of On the Transmigration of Souls, finishing almost precisely where it began, and working more by a kind of post-modern collage of additions than by the organic growth of romanticism. Where Beethoven finds means to transcend the tragic implications of life, Adams memorialises disaster; there is no attempt in Adams’s piece to move towards any kind of anagnorisis, any kind of tragic recognition; in a sense he has chosen to close off the possibility since, in characteristically post-modern fashion he eschews subjectivity and interiority; what we have is not, Adams tells, us a “requiem”.  “If pressed, I’d probably call the piece a ‘memory space’. It’s a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions,” he says. The focus is, be it noted, is on our “thoughts and emotions” not the composer’s. When Beethoven turns to words – which are made to seem the logical outcome of the preceding three movements – it is to those of a poet that he turns, and in Schiller’s text the central word (Freude/Joy) is one of the key words of romantic thought, as in Coleridge’s Dejection: An Ode:

Joy, Lady! Is the spirit and the power,
Which wedding Nature to us gives in dower
A new Earth and new Heaven,
Undreamt of by the sensual and the proud –
Joy is the sweet voice, Joy the luminous cloud –
We in ourselves rejoice!
And thence flows all that charms or ear or sight,
All melodies the echoes of that voice,
All colours a suffusion from that light.

Adams turns instead to the poignant (but unsurprisingly trite, aesthetically speaking) messages left by the grieving – “Missing: Manuel Damotta”, “The mother says: ‘He used to call me every day. I’m just waiting’, “I love you” – and a roll call of names. The result is more War Memorial than Requiem.

The performance of Of the Transmigration of Souls which opened the evening was assured and purposeful; the great variety of sound sources, orchestra, several choirs and orchestra, being well integrated and balanced. Thierry Fischer made, I suspect, as good a case for the work as one might reasonably expect, though even his intelligent commitment couldn’t entirely conceal the predictability of the work, for all the interest of some of he orchestral writing. The massed choral voices are given little of real power or significance to sing, and the whole feels worthy rather than profound; I suspect that the work will not long outlast its specific occasion.

Beethoven’s Ninth is, of course, a work that has been co-opted for significant occasions in our own times. Artistically speaking it embodies and articulates a ‘myth’ of universal application; what Richard Wigmore has described as the work’s “ineluctable progression from darkness to light” makes it a particularly potent version of that kind of ‘narrative’ (insofar as such a word can be applied to a symphony) discussed in Thomas Connolly’s excellent Mourning into Joy (though as his book’s subtitle tells us, his immediate concern is with the Renaissance rather than the romantics: ‘Music, Raphael, and Saint Cecilia’.

Thierry Fischer’s Beethoven is very much a composer of energy and dramatic contrast; rather less emphasis is placed on what one might call his power of thought. Here there were some sharp contrasts of tempi; at times speeds were near break neck; in the adagio there were moments when forward momentum was almost lost. The first movement had less darkness about it than one might have wished, in terms of the larger scheme of the work, and the D minor close of the movement was a little underpowered, somewhat short of tragic weight. The second movement benefited from some sharply etched and emphasised rhythms and a strong sense of drama, but this was sometimes achieved at the cost of a certain loss of subtlety. The close of the movement was passionately hard-driven. It was in the third movement that I found the performance most disappointing. There was something rather forced and jerky about the phrasing of the beautiful opening theme, and throughout the playing of the strings (almost without vibrato) was marked by the kind of imprecisions and loss of blend that one doesn’t often hear from this orchestra. Things got back more happily on track in the final movement, though there were moments when some participants clearly had their problems in matching Fischer’s chosen tempi. The men and women of the choir did pretty well, and there were some glorious entries by the female voices; there were, though, moments where some words got swallowed in the general haste. The soloists were an impressive line up; Mathew Rose sang with a declamatory power that also had considerable subtlety of phrasing; Rebecca Evans was in particularly good voice and the ever reliable Andrew Kennedy was as intelligent as ever in his interpretation of text; Hanne Fischer was an assured and accurate vocal presence. There is no denying that Fischer’s reading of the work brought it to a thoroughly exciting climax; but not everything that went before that climax was quite so satisfying. So, finally, an interesting rather than a wholly satisfying, evening.

Glyn Pursglove