PROM 69: Widman Premiere Work Evokes Ghosts of Expressionist Past

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 69 – Brahms and Widmann: Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 8.9.2014 (MB)

BrahmsTragic Overture, op.81
WidmannTeufel Amor (UK premiere)
Brahms – Symphony no.2 in D major, op.73

Sadly, one of the most striking things about this concert was the small attendance. I should have assumed that a major American orchestra with a renowned if not necessarily universally lauded conductor playing a programme of mostly Brahms would have sold out, or near enough.  Prom 69 actually proved to be the most sparsely attended of any of the ‘mainstream’ Proms (i.e. at the Albert Hall, and not ‘late night’ )  have been to this season. Quite why, I am not at all sure; it is not as if we are overburdened with opportunities to hear the Cleveland Orchestra. It was my first such opportunity, and I was very glad to do so, for whatever the disappointments of Franz Welser-Möst’s conducting, it remained a privilege to hear the orchestra itself.

 The other most striking feature was the British premiere of Jörg Widmann’s Teufel Amor, his 2009 (revised in 2011) ‘symphonic poem after Schiller’ – both the work and what seemed to me a very fine performance. The composer’s description on Schott’s website offers a helpful introduction:

 After the rejection of his drama Fiesco in Mannheim, Schiller offered his poem Teufel Amor to a bookseller in Frankfurt for 25 guilders. As the bookseller only offered him 18 guilders for the poem, ‘[Schiller] preferred to remain destitute rather than wasting his poetry on a skinflint who was unappreciative of his artistry’ (Gustav Schwab) and took his poem away with him. Only a tiny scrap of this poem has survived – albeit an exceedingly poetic and also musical fragment:

Süßer Amor, verweile / Im melodischen Flug
[Sweet Amor, remain in melodic flight]

A movement as a state of being, and a state of being as movement: an apparently contradictory pair, just like the title of the poem, Teufel Amor. Love however contains more contradictions than anything else in the world, epitomising the extremes of heaven and hell, pleasure and suffering, paradise and snake-pit. Whoever has been touched by the arrow of love is at the same time a human wounded by an arrow. My imagination was fired by Schiller’s fragment; his conception of the flight of Amor as the heights and depths of a melodic progression inspired me to compose a symphonic hymnos which praises the marvels of love – even in its devilish incarnation.

 What Paul Griffiths, in his programme note, described as an ‘abyssal darkness of love … [with which] the work begins,’ sounded, with its pointillistic low brass and woodwind, as if Wagner were refracted through Webern.  Gradually, we discerned a thematic cauldron, scenting a musical brew with a definite sense of the Teufel, even of Hölle. Eerie ghosts of an expressionist past – this was surely inconceivable without Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces – announced themselves, as did Strauss and Mahler in the hymn-music. Fragments strained hard toward, sometimes attained, a fragile (late Romantic?) wholeness. Long violin lines – expertly played – seemed both to aid and call that into question, even before the advent of a waltzing phantasmagoria. Mahler seemed ever more prominent, in the pathos of individual lines (Joshua Smith’s flute in particular) and indeed in the harmony. It occurred to me that this was a work that would go very well with Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. There was much, which, taken out of context, might have been thought ‘late Romantic’ or ‘early modernist’, but context, of course was crucial. Material no longer means the same thing – and this was clearly part of the pathos, even perhaps Widmann’s tragic intent.

 Brahms, alas, fared less well, especially in the Tragic Overture, which Welser-Möst managed both to drive hard and to have sound well-nigh interminable. (It has always struck me as one of Brahms’s most succinct pieces.) The extent of that driving would surely have made George Szell blanch, but it was also quite without Szell’s sense of purpose. The Cleveland sound, however, was wonderful: dark, rich, finely articulated. At its best, the performance evinced a certain turbulence, redolent perhaps of some of the composer’s piano pieces; at its worst, it was merely harried. That is, until torpor set in. There was a sad lack of coherence, even on what appeared to be Welser-Möst’s own terms.

 The Second Symphony opened more promisingly. Its first movement was certainly not unduly driven, but tempo fluctuations were far from entirely convincing. Again, it was well played – beautiful woodwind detail in particular – but proved interpretatively faceless, save for genuine strength in the cross-rhythms. Brahms’s ‘geniality’ nevertheless seemed all too unalloyed, untroubled by the dark shadows that make this symphony what it is. The slow movement was taken at a perfectly reasonable tempo considered in abstraction, but Welser-Möst’s over-conducting made for a pedantic impression. One heard far too many bar-lines, even beats and their sub-divisions. It soon faded into generic listlessness. The third movement was the most successful of the four. On the fast side, very much so, it was nevertheless made to work. Playing was well-pointed; detail was apparent without obscuring the greater picture. The finale, alas, succumbed again to the strange temptation to drive too hard, too inflexibly. There was, perhaps more damagingly still, little sense of what connected the four movements; it was as if Brahms had composed a suite rather than a symphony. The First Hungarian Dance was offered as an encore: again, excellently played, but Welser-Möst’s rubato was laboured in the extreme.

 Mark Berry

Leave a Comment