Roth Conducts Early Webern and Nietzschean Strauss

Webern, Mozart, Strauss.Rosemary Joshua (soprano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / François-Xavier Roth (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 24.5.2013 (PCG)

Webern: Im Sommerwind; Passacaglia, Op.1
Mozart: Concert Arias: Chi sà, chi sà, qual sia; Vado, ma dove?; Alma grande e nobil core
Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra

This wide-ranging programme began with two early works by Webern, separated by a mere four years but inhabiting wildly different worlds. Im Sommerwind was a symphonic poem written by the composer at the age of twenty, never performed or published in his lifetime and indeed not given until 1962. It is a rhapsodic impression somewhat in the style of Delius, but unfortunately (like Delius at his more discursive) form is not its strong point, and the sudden changes of mood are disconcerting as if the young composer was still feeling his direction – as indeed he was. It is unlikely that this music, certainly no better than contemporaneous works by lesser composers such as Max von Schillings or Siegfried Wagner, would get an airing were it by someone other than Webern, despite the good full-hearted romantic advocacy it received here from Roth and the orchestra. But the sense of impressionist calm at the end was very beautiful.

In the Passacaglia, despite the contrasts between the individual statements of the theme, the music is much more unified with a sure sense of direction which one can appreciate even as one laments the loss of romantic innocence to be found in the earlier work. Even so, some of the atmospheric orchestral effects clearly come from the same source as in Im Sommerwind. It was interesting to encounter these two works in close proximity, showing the path that the composer was later to pursue.

Rosemary Joshua, clearly suffering with a cold, nevertheless managed to engage delightfully with both conductor and audience in the Mozart concert arias that followed. She was forced to pause to take a sip of water (which she assured the audience was “not gin”) before the final aria, and occasional coughs which followed showed that she was still suffering. She was also scheduled to sing the Mozart Exultate jubilate after the interval, but she was forced to withdraw. Under the circumstances it would clearly be unjust to observe that she was sometimes underpowered by comparison with Roth’s characterful and responsive accompaniment, since she sang intelligently and indeed beautifully despite her evident indisposition.

Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra was given a humdinger of a performance under François-Xavier Roth, a conductor whose credentials in romantic music are clearly to be reckoned with. The BBC had made every endeavour to comply with Strauss’s extravagant orchestral demands, so we had the full complement of strings including 32 violins and 8 double-basses; only the “deep bell” towards the end was unsatisfactory, a long tubular bell an octave too high for the low E given in the score. There were a couple of orchestral slips in the long and strenuous score – a missed trumpet octave leap to high C, and some uncomfortable wind ensemble in the final bars – but generally the players acquitted themselves nobly and Robert Court’s contribution on the organ filled with hall with some of the loudest sounds I have ever heard in this venue.

Norman del Mar, in his Anatomy of the orchestra, points out that the divided string passages include some of the highest notes ever written for the orchestral violins, but there was no sense of uncertainty here; and the first trombone showed an equal sense of security as he launched the fugue in a passage rising to high D. But one might suggest that the trumpet leap to high C, which as Norman del Mar observes “remains a tour-de-force,” might be easier to play if the player used a trumpet in C (as notated in the score) rather than the nowadays more usual trumpet in Bb – it was not clear which instrument the player was using here – and also that players might consider adoption of his suggestion that high pianissimo piccolo notes (as at the end of the work) might be better served by the use of a small whistle (as del Mar used in his Festival Hall performance with the London Symphony Orchestra of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder “which produced exactly the right sound and pitch in, moreover, a true effortless pianissimo”). Even so it must be observed that the performance generally fizzled with life, and the occasional difficulties which did occur are really the fault of the composer rather than the players.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and will be available for a week for listening on the BBC i-player. (You can hear Rosemary Joshua assuring the audience that her liquid refreshment “really wasn’t gin,” too.) The recorded sound lacks the sheer overwhelming power of the live performance, but the balance also serves to conceal some of the minor defects to which I have referred here (the final piccolo chords sound much better, for example). It also brings forward more effectively than in the hall the violin solo in the Tanzlied, confidently played by Lesley Hatfield.

Paul Corfield Godfrey