Kaleidoscopic Bach and Hyper-Romanticised Schubert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Schubert, Mahler: Matthias Goerne (baritone), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 07.03.2013 (SRT)

Bach: Ricercar from The Musical Offering (arr. Webern)
Schubert: Songs with Orchestra
Symphony No. 5
Mahler: Adagietto from Symphony No. 5

The Schubert symphony was the only “orthodox” thing on tonight’s programme, and it was played with sunny delicacy, crowned by a slow movement of glowing beauty. Everything else was a little unusual in its own way. More than once Ticciati and the SCO drew our attention to how skilled an arranger Anton Webern was. His realisation of Bach’s great fugue was utterly compelling with each line (or at times even a fragment of a line) given to different instruments, frequently playing solo. It was as if we were witnessing Bach’s musical argument through the medium of a multicoloured kaleidoscope. I found the experience fascinatingly dynamic and endlessly interesting, as much for Webern’s interpretation as for Bach’s invention, but it remained a strangely introverted piece, thoughtful and reflective rather than ebullient or showy.

Schubert’s songs were also heard through the prism of various arrangers, including Webern who set a song each from Winterreise and Die Schöne Müllerin. With this sequence of songs the effect wasn’t so much kaleidoscopic as hyper-Romanticised. In almost every case I felt as though there was more of the arranger in the piece than there was of Schubert, though that wasn’t necessarily a loss. Brahms, for example, did an interesting job of hyperbolising the drama in the Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, and he coloured Memnon with a beautifully tolling quartet of horns. Reger’s arrangement of Erlkönig, on the other hand, knocked on the door of Wagner, the orchestral line sounding for all the world like the storm from Die Walküre. I’ve just been listening to the latest volume in Matthias Goerne’s Schubert series on Harmonia Mundi, and it’s fascinating to hear his Schubert live in such a different context. When required, as in Erlkönig, he produced singing of Wagnerian intensity to match the arrangement, but he was just as capable of a tender touch, as in the lovely Im Abendrot, which was also the song where I most missed the intimacy of the piano line. Goerne’s dark, nutty timbre was full of mahogany richness but never heavy, always borne up by something airy and gently, making him an all but ideal interpreter of Schubert.

But the greatest revelation of the evening came not from an arrangement but from an unadorned piece of Mahler. Mahler played by a chamber orchestra is a daring idea, but it worked triumphantly. The Adagietto, perhaps more than any other movement in Mahler, suffers from soupiness when it is badly played, but Ticciati and the SCO strings blew a ventilator through the textures, revealing the inner voices (especially the outstanding cellos) while adding extra intensity to the upper violin line and producing a knockout ten minutes of heart-stopping beauty. This movement was worth the admission on its own.

Simon Thompson