Music for Ash Wednesday with the BBC NOW and Thomas Dausgaard

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Strauss, Mahler, Sibelius: Ben Johnson (tenor), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 22.Feb.2012 (GPu)

Strauss, Metamorphosen
, Rückert Lieder
: Symphony No.4

By accident or design this was a programme ideally appropriate for Ash Wednesday. Mourning and repentance were, if not the universal note of the music heard, at any rate recurrent and insistent presences. Lenten abstinence came to mind too, in the relative austerity and restraint which each of these three composers makes use of the resources of the orchestra in these particular compositions.

Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen – for 23 strings – was written during the last weeks of the Second World War. Strauss was over 80 but had the passion and energy to compose this piece in only a few weeks. Heard on Ash Wednesday it is hard not to hear in it a penitent sense of human foolishness and malevolence, expressed in acts of violence on an hitherto unimaginable scale; and to hear in its elegiac reimagining of so much in the Austro-German musical tradition an awareness (surely?) of how that tradition had been abused and (more certainly) of a consciousness that in a very real sense that tradition was coming to an end. The echoes of the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Third Symphony have a poignant and powerful irony about them, an irony far from comic. The subtlety of Strauss’s scoring, the skill with which his Lenten orchestral forces are deployed, as chamber orchestra becomes momently a sextet or an octet before regaining its wholeness; the constant emergence of solo voices and their consequent reimmersion into the body of the ensemble; such effects more than justify the subtitle the work carries: ‘A Study for 23 Solo Strings’. The soloists of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, perceptively and sensitively directed by Thomas Dausgaard, gave a performance of Metamorphosen which respected all of Strauss’s subtlety, and also packed a tremendous emotional punch, full of grave beauty and heart-breaking pathos.

Strauss’s behaviour during the years of Nazi rule had not, to put it politely, been morally distinguished. Toscanini famously remarked that “To Strauss the composer, I take off my hat; to Strauss the man, I put it back on”. One wonders whether the music of Metamorphosen didn’t, by its intrinsic union of impersonal and personal, that union inherent in music itself, enable Strauss to recognise and articulate a degree of self-recognition (and associated penitence) that he could never truly bring himself to verbalise, even if the initial occasion for the impulse to write the music that became Metamorphosen was the severe devastation caused in Munich by an air-raid in the autumn of 1943, which involved the destruction of the Bavarian National Theater. Thomas Dausgaard’s conducting balanced the demands of the local musical moment with a thorough sense of the greater containing arc of the work and his continuity of line, and without the slightest sense of any detail ever being overlooked in the process, was very impressive. This was a sombre, beautiful and moving reading of the work.

The young British tenor Ben Johnson took on the demands of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder with assurance and a considerable degree of success. He has a rich voice, which sounded particularly strong at the bottom end of its range on this particular occasion. He is clearly a very thoughtful singer, a very intelligent interpreter of text. He chose to sing the five songs in order as follows: ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’, ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’, ‘Um Mitternacht’, ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ and ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’. In ‘Blicke mir’ he spun out the relatively simple melodic line very winningly and Thomas Dausgaard’s direction of the orchestra balanced that simplicity with a full, but uncluttered, articulation of Mahler’s writing. In ‘Ich atmet’’ Johnson sang with beautiful tenderness and brought out very clearly the meanings inherent in Mahler’s repetitions. ‘Um Mitternacht’ (which, in its yielding of human will to that of God had its Ash Wednesday resonances too) was beautifully paced by singer and conductor, the absence of the strings producing some distinctive and striking moments. ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ I find the weakest song in the group and not just because of Max Puttmann’s slightly ponderous orchestration, since Mahler’s own melodic invention is less surefooted and memorable than elsewhere, but Johnson and Dausgaard made a very decent case for it. I was a little less convinced, however, by the performance of ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’. It’s a fascinating text and Mahler’s setting of it contains some evidently heartfelt music. The orchestral introduction was beautifully paced and played, but Johnson’s entrance found him vocally a little distanced from the orchestral sound, the words superimposed, as it were, rather than growing along with the orchestral writing. Nor did Johnson quite capture the quiet radiance of the last lines of the poem. But there was much that was moving, much that spoke powerfully of this young singer’s judgement and expressiveness alike; Johnson is already a very accomplished singer and his youth makes one look forward to even more. Dausgaard proved a thoroughly sympathetic and supportive conductor.

The programme closed with Sibelius’s remarkable Fourth Symphony. With Ash-Wednesday in mind, it might relevant to remember that on one occasion, asked about the work, Sibelius replied with a quotation from Strindberg: “Det är synd om människorna (It is misery to be human)”. Although the quotation certainly points to one dimension of this compressed and complex work, taken alone it ignores too much and runs the risk of making the work sound merely self-pitying – which it isn’t. Thomas Dausgaard’s interpretation of the symphony found more of the tragic than the merely miserable. Nor was that profoundly oxymoronic condition of ‘tragic joy’, an approach to the sublime, wholly absent. The first movement certainly had its moments of almost heavenly vision, and its passages of measured wisdom, as well as a grandeur that left questions of human individuality far behind and took on a terrifying bleakness. The pastoral efflorescence with which the following allegro molto vivace opens was felt as a real (if temporary) comfort, as near to consolation as this symphony chooses to offer the listener. Yet the abrupt suddenness with which that comfort is truncated after just six bars when the theme returns at the end of the movement confines and limits any serious possibility of hope. The remarkable third movement, which was quite beautifully conducted and played, has about it much that is uncomforted, unassuaged. There is a sense of powers far greater than the merely human, of a darkness and unknowability surrounding human life.

The Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä said of this work that it was music which offered “many questions and few answers … the music tells us that life goes on despite difficulties. We are in the hands of God. Divine power cannot be excluded.” I am not sure that Divine power was quite what was evoked in this performance; nature and the human seemed more fully relevant. There is, in the final movement, an affirmatory presence in the lovely, simple writing for the glockenspiel, which seems to speak of innocence in the face of the bitterness of experience. Certainly the glockenspiel’s simplicity is contested and defeated by noisier, more complex and more conflicted forces. Dausgaard responded to this contest with fine musical judgement, the care with which, early in the movement, he ensured that the glockenspiel was allowed prominence was fully rewarded in the austere closing pages, where the distance travelled was consequently all the more deeply felt. The trajectory seems to be taking the music and us into a ‘nothingness’ of which it would be rash to attempt definition or elucidation. Thomas Dausgaard was a powerfully effective guide on this spiritual journey and the Orchestra responded admirably to the incisive intelligence and controlled expressiveness of his conducting.

This was a challenging, moving and thought-provoking concert. As I left I heard another member of the audience say to his friend – “not the most cheerful programme I have ever heard”. No, but it was Ash Wednesday!

Glyn Pursglove