Prom 50: Imaginative Programming from Vänskä and the BBC SO

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 50: Beethoven, Mozart, Delius, Nielsen: Michael Collins (basset clarinet), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä (conductor), 20 .8.2012. (GD)

Beethoven: Egmont Overture, Op.84
Mozart: Clarinet Concerto in A major, K 622
Delius: Eventyr
Nielsen: Symphony No. 5, Op.50

This was extremely imaginative programming. Both the Delius work and the Nielsen symphony have unusual and arresting off-stage effects, both soloist and conductor, Osmo Vänskä are, (or were, in the case of Vänskä) clarinet players, and the clarinet was an instrument loved by both Mozart and Nielsen who writes some very challenging parts for clarinet in the Fifth Symphony. He also composed a wonderful clarinet concerto. The concert opened with a finely conceived Egmont overture. Here, and thoughout, the BBC orchestra excelled themselves. I found particularly captivating John Chimes’ most musical timpani playing, never merely bashed out, as we sometimes hear. The overture itself was sustained in structure, and lucid in terms of orchestral balance. In the main Allegro I would have welcomed a bit more dramatic tension, and the concluding ‘Victory Symphony’ needed more weight in the Klemperer manner. Also there was an unfortunate horn fluff in the horn fanfare, just before the coda. But overall this was a most distinguished Egmont, to be expected from a conductor who recently recorded a most rewarding Beethoven symphony cycle.

I was glad that Michael Collins used a ‘basset’, or ‘alto’ clarinet tonight in Mozart’s sublime last concerto. Mozart composed the concerto for his clarinetist friend Anton Stadler to be played on basset clarinet. Unfortunately, the concerto has come down to us in an adaptation for the standard clarinet without basset register. Although Mozart’s authorship can be ruled out here, the concerto from the late nineteenth century up until quite recently was played in this spurious edition, by world famous clarinet players. It is only recently, with the influence of ‘period’ performing styles, that clarinet players have deployed the instrument Mozart composed for. Of course, in the absence of Mozart’s original autograph score for the basset clarinet part, a degree of improvisation from the player is required. But this is not a serious problem as Mozart’s impeccable score provides most of the leads for such improvisation. Also, in Mozart’s time players like Stadler were known to deploy levels of improvisation. But the use of the basset clarinet is not simply predicated on a current will towards ‘authenticity’. The basset clarinet has a more diverse range than the standard modern instrument,; but, more importantly, its darker registers correspond exactly to Mozart’s darker tonalities. And these apply, with supreme tonal finesse, to this concerto. It was also the tonal register used in other later Mozart works, such as the Masonic Funeral Music ,K 477 and his last work, the Requiem, K.626.

I am happy to report that Collins bought out these darker, more obscure tones, with great conviction in both the minor key passages and those in the major, projecting Mozart’s superbly crafted ‘ambiguity’. Vänskä and Collins took the first movement quite swiftly, in line with the ‘Allegro’ marking. In the opening ritornello there were some slight uncertainties in the violins, but from there on the orchestra was on top form. Vänskä, who obviously knows and loves the concerto, conducted with great charm and conviction, and throughout there was a wonderful, conversational, dialogue between soloist and conductor. When one hears the superbly economic blending of the tonic A with C major and E major, later, in the development section, F sharp minor modulated into D major, all played with such lucidity and insight, the nomination of Mozart as the ‘greatest’ of all composers, does not seem so far off the mark! As Tovey once commented on the sublime A major ‘Adagio’, ‘it will be recognised as well as known by many listeners who have never realised where it came from’. Even when film director Paul Schrader used it in a synthesised electronic transcription in his 1980 film American Gigolo many of the thousands who first saw it were asking for the title of music, in order to buy it on record. Tonight it just seemed to play itself, and that is how it should sound, with an absolute minimum of interpretive intervention. Of course this was why Collins and Vänskä sounded so right…’the art of interpretation that conceals interpretation’. One could probably write a book on the intricacies and contrasts of the closing Rondo. It opens with the playful and minimally accompanied theme on basset clarinet, is repeated by the orchestra and very soon develops into a cascade of varying, and perfectly matched tonalities, some exuberant, some venturing into contrapuntal ideas, and some of a deceptively darker, even dramatic tone. Here, as in the first movement, I was simply in a state of wonder at Mozart’s superb transitions, such as the modulation from F minor to A major in the development section, and towards the coda. Mozart deploys the usual flutes, bassoons and horns, omitting oboes, in order to highlight the reedy voice of the soloist.

Vänskä deployed a larger than usual string section, essential in the cavernous acoustic of the Albert Hall. At times I wanted hear a more sharp tone especially from the horns, and I wish that Vänskä had deployed antiphonal violins. But these are no more than quibbles in the light such a satisfying performance of a unique classic.

As an encore Collin’s and the orchestra gave us a charming and idiomatic rendition of Gerald Finzi’s Romance, from the Five Bagatelles, Op.23 for clarinet and piano. Tonight we heard the later arrangement of the piece for clarinet and string orchestra arranged by Lawrence Ashmore.

Delius’s Eventyr (1917) is, unusually, not much performed. With only one previous performance at the Proms! It was played tonight as part of the 150th aniversary of the composer’s birth in 1862, and a selection of his works are being performed at the Proms to mark the event. If anything this performance was even more idiomatic and responsive to Delius’s rich orchestral colouring, than the performance of his Paris: Song of a Great City performed at the Proms as part of Prom 43 last week. Eventyr was championed by Beecham who relished its sharp rhythms and ‘wild effects’. He left two recordings of the piece, and again they have set a benchmark by which all subsequent performances are rated.

As far as I know Vänskä has not previously conducted much Delius. It is astonishing therefore how well he understands Delus’s style and idiom. The work translates as ‘Once Upon a Time’, or ‘Tales of Adventure’. Delius was entranced by Norway, its landscape, many legends and myths. Although the music does not attempt to portray any particular mythical event from Norwegian folk-lore, it wonderfully conjures up the atmosphere of dark forests, witches, mythical beasts, ‘trolls, giants, demons and pixies’. But this is not simply onomatopoetic fairy tale music, Eventyr takes us into some very dark musical domains, frequently deploying unsettling chromatic effects in wood-wind and brass. A large orchestra is deployed with an array of percussion which inform the rhythmic complexities of the work, with frequent cross-rhytms patterns, interlinking with more rhythmic figures, especially from the orchestras lower registers. The two shouts, which come at the work’s climax, are intoned by an off-stage male chorus (pre-recorded tonight). Initially I found this effect quite odd! But after listening to the work more, and especially tonight’s performance, I now fully understand what tonight’s programme writer means when he talks of them as ‘an eerie cry out of the night …. surely among the strangest and most original moments in all orchestral music’. The BBC orchestra’s playing was superb, as though they play the work all the time, all surely inspired by Vänskä who, as much as Beecham, understood every nuance, tonal detour and rhythmic complexity of this extraordinary piece. But surely one reason for such empathy is the fact that Vänskä is probably today’s leading Sibelius conductor, also conducting many other Nordic compositions. So it comes as no surprise that he is fully in tune with dark musical landscapes telling of magical/haunted forests, witches, giants, trolls, goblins etc…

Every facet of what is arguably Nielsen’s greatest symphony was delivered with total conviction and adherence to the score. I have rarely heard the BBC Symphony Orchestra in such splendid form. But of course the real unifying force here was Vänskä’s conducting. As with Sibelius, but on a different symphonic level, Nielsen, and this symphony in particular, require a real grasp, not just of structural coherence, but of how the music evolves, transforming into different, sometimes remote, tonal contrasts. This was evident from the beginning of the work where we have a sustained but static pulse in the strings, the woodwinds taking up the themes. Here an A major and C major are established. But then we are wrenched into a relentless F rhythm on side drum over a pounding timpani figure. As this martial sequence subsides, we are taken into a serene but remote tonal landscape, initiated in a confident sounding D. But as this develops, in a huge and measured crescendo, the confident D gives way to a more sinister figuration in the woodwinds, running counter to the broard glow in D. As this reaches a huge climax with resplendent horns intoning the D theme, we are hurled into a suden sustained and menacing rhythm on snare drum in a tempo faster than that of the orchestra. At this point Nielsen instructs the snare drum player to disrupt the flow of the tutti drive as much as he can. Vanska managed these strange and varied contrasts and progressions with consumate mastery. Tonight’s percussionist made this wild onslaught quite clear playing in increasingly louder rhythmic units, until the sanity and triumph of the orchestra rose above the mad drummer, who seemed to march off into the distance, with ghostly dying off-stage tattoos.

Vänskä managed to unify the symphony’s two vast movements with total musical and structural conviction. The opening of the second movement Allegro, in the form of a scherzo, with a pounding and incisive three-note timpani figure, was executed with power but never sounded ponderous, as is sometimes the case. This develops into an ominous fugue which at first has a bucolic feel to it, but with a tonal shift to F the fugue, now ferociously hammered out by full orchestra takes on a tone of sustained menace. Here the ‘Walpurgis Nacht’ is not too far away. The fugue does not so much subside as fragment, with an angry duel between clarinets and timpani – a quite unique sound in symphonic music at the time it was written. It was details like this where Vänskä and the orchestra excelled, with superbly sharp clarinets (clarinets as a concert theme) and superb timpani playing by the already mentioned John Chimes. After a slow (‘not too slow’) and ascending fugue initially in the strings, the movement’s opening, through a superb tonal shift to the scherzo theme, reappears, now in the resilient major. This initiates the coda heralded by festive octaves on trumpets and horns, which ends in a festive C.

Many commentators have emphasised the optimism of the coda, but even before the final hammered out C’s on crescendo timpani, there is an undertone of menace in the insistent frantic figure on strings in the lower register, intoning a speeded up version of the woodwind trills which darken the huge crescendo, which gives way to the disruptive drum part in the first movement. A note of stoic resilience ends the work…which some have seen as the restless energy of the force of life. But this is only achieved through a course which entails a conflict with the forces of death and destruction. Tonight I felt that this hard won victory of the forces of life with more power and conviction than in any performance I have heard, on record and in concert. It of course says a lot for Vänskä that it was Nielsen’s fascinating music which shone through, and a performance or an interpretation cannot achieve much more than this!

Geoff Diggines