Colourful and Varied Programming by Josep Pons and the BBC Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schreker, Busoni, Ravel, and Schoenberg: Nora Gubisch (soprano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Josep Pons (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 4.12.2013 (MB)

SchrekerVorspiel zu einen Drama
BusoniBerceuse élegiaque, op.42
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Schoenberg – Chamber Symphony no.1, version for full orchestra, op.9b


A refreshing programme of early(-ish)-twentieth-century orchestral music from the BBC SO and Catalan conductor, Josep Pons, which, if it did not always possess the last word in refinement, certainly benefited from Pons’s palpable enthusiasm for this repertoire. Indeed, the opening Schreker, Vorspiel zu einem Dramanot, as the Barbican website had it, the Overture to Die Gezeichneten, from which this longer concert work derives – can rarely, if ever, have been heard with such liveliness, even bumptiousness. The performance itself made a refreshing change from the over-ripe decadence to which we have become accustomed in such music. Not that there was no hint of such a tendency, but the last thing the music needs is exaggeration in that quarter. Amidst a sea, no an ocean, of coughing and even – I kid you not – widespread eating and drinking, Pons projected a strong sense of line, the BBC SO responding with apparent glee to Schreker’s orchestral phantasmagoria. There was plenty of bite too, rhythmic command being especially impressive. And if there were perhaps times when Pons’s infectious enthusiasm threatened to run away with itself, the performance was one of warmth: just the ticket for a cold December night.

Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque followed. If Schreker is a minor master of whom it would be no bad thing to hear a little more, then Busoni is a scandalously neglected figure, his Doktor Faust one of the great twentieth-century operas, and his other three operatic scores all fully worthy of repertory status. Given his pre-eminence as pianist, Busoni’s orchestral music is often still more overlooked than his operas. (Not that his piano music is performed nearly as often as it should be.) Schreker’s large orchestra contrasted strongly with Busoni’s refined instrumentation; likewise the former’s superior proto-Hollywood harmonies with the latter’s radical ambiguity. Is this the major or minor mode? We may well be asking the wrong question – but not in a Schoenbergian sense (though at times, the orchestration sounds not so different from a Schoenberg ensemble, ‘influence’ being most likely to fall at least as strongly in the opposite direction). There was a properly nauseous and ominous sense of the rocking berceuse to this performance, though there were times when it sounded a little effortful. In general, however, there was admirably clean, classical elegance to be heard, coupled with a dark, troubling undertow. Late Liszt, unsurprisingly, came to mind more than once, as prelude to Busoni’s dissolution of ‘form into feeling’, a wondrous tribute to his mother upon her death.

Ravel, that towering master of orchestration, was to be heard immediately before and after the interval. Nora Gubisch joined the orchestra for a wonderful account of Shéhérazade, her tone both lustrous and clear: in many ways ideal for the composer. Pons assured a variegated account, matched by his soloists, transitions in ‘Asie’ especially well handled. There was true dramatic urgency where required. The ecstasy upon the word ‘Chinie’, followed by a plethora of orchestral chinoiserie, was just as impressive as the exultant climax upon ‘haine’ and resultant orchestral afterglow. ‘La Flute enchantée,’ with an excellent flute solo from Michael Cox, was expectant than ‘langoroureux,’ the balance between mystery and clarity well judged. ‘L’Indifférent’ emerged with all its sexual ambiguity. What a wonderful hush was to be heard upon the injunction, ‘Entre!’ The Pavane pour une infante défunte was treated to an unsentimental account, which Pons kept moving without rushing. Dance rhythm was apparent, even generative, throughout.

I wish I could feel greater enthusiasm about Schoenberg’s 1935 version for full orchestra of his First Chamber Symphony. Whilst understanding his reasons for providing this alternative, it seems – and continued to seem – inferior in every respect to the original, like a considerably more extreme case of Verklärte Nacht. Timbres and edges are smoothed and blunted; solo moments come as welcome relief, reminding one of just what one is missing. That said, there were in this performance occasions when a stronger-still kinship to Mahler and Brahms came through, partly as result of the larger forces. Pons’s tempo shifts were considerable but not unconvincing, save for a sagging of tension during the slow movement. Still, this is Schoenberg, and it is no bad thing to remind ourselves from time to time of a weaker, yet indubitably ‘authentic’, version of what remains a strong candidate for the title of most joyous twentieth-century musical masterpiece.

Mark Berry

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