Schubert Inspires a Thought-Provoking Programme from Edward Gardner

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Henze, Thomas Larcher, John Adams: Mark Padmore (tenor), BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus, Edward Gardner (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 1.11.2014 (CS)

Schubert – Symphony in B Minor No.8 D.759 (‘Unfinished’)
HenzeErlkönig fantasy
Thomas Larcher – A Padmore Cycle (world première of orchestrated version)
John AdamsHarmonium

Franz Schubert – his music, inspiration and influence – was at the heart of this varied programme by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at the Barbican Hall.

Conductor Edward Gardner combined the drama of a Romantic opera overture with the poise and precision of Classical chamber music in a lucid performance of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony.  The ghostly pianissimo introductory theme, eerily whispered by the six celli and four double basses, and the lyrical main subject, played with elegance by oboe and clarinet, established a breadth and spaciousness which characterised Gardner’s phrasing throughout and which made the melodies spin out naturally, as if sung.  But, if there was sweetness in the bassoons’ and horns’ harmonic ‘slide’ to the major key second subject and gentleness in the strings’ flowing melody above warm syncopation from violas and clarinets, Gardner was alert to the underlying restiveness of the score.  The string theme faded unnervingly and the sforzando outburst which followed the potent silence was fittingly discomforting; the return of the introductory motif at the exposition repeat took on a funereal gravity and mystery.

Throughout the movement, textures were sharply defined: the string tremolos and marcato chords, the woodwind staccato accents and the dry timpani punctuations were cleanly articulated, and dynamic contrasts were emphasised markedly.  Gardner structured the repeating sequences of the development section with a sure sense of the accumulating harmonic drama, and successfully maintained a tension between the opposing musical arguments until the final uncanny reprise of the opening theme.

The Andante con moto, though it commenced with a pastoral gentleness – the triple time theme easily rolling forward propelled by carefree bass pizzicato – was similarly unsettling.  Gardner was concerned to highlight that the contrasts and conflicts of the Allegro moderato continue here.  The shifting syncopations of the upper strings, supporting the beautifully played high clarinet solo (Richard Hosford), exploded in an exclamation of angry defiance which grew in ferocity with the varied repetition of the passage.  The movement came to rest in uneasy stillness.

There was agitation and apprehension too in Hans Werner Henze’s Erlkönig fantasy, which the composer wrote in 1997 to mark Schubert’s 200th birthday; derived from an episode from Henze’s 1962 ballet Le fils de l’air, the fantasy is the composer’s response to Schubert’s song, ‘Erlkönig’, and here served as a thought-provoking postlude to the preceding symphony.

Guiding the swelled ranks of the BBC Symphony Orchestra through the ever-changing measures, Gardner whipped up an exuberance and energy which grew from mercurial, magical beginnings – the large percussion section adding much colour and gleam – into something more disconcerting, as the rhythms pounded more fiercely and the horns, brass and timpani steered the timbre to darker worlds.  Glassy high strings, incessant brass punches, strange harmonics from the vibraphone and marimbaphone, glinting tints from harp and celesta: all whirled and raced, summoning the child’s terrifying nocturnal visions – wisps of fog, trembling willow trees, shivering leaves – as his father drives their horse ever faster.  The final shriek was alarmingly sudden and violent, echoing with the deep dread of Goethe’s supernatural terror.

Thomas Larcher’s ‘A Padmore Cycle ‘ also pays homage to Schubert, as the Tyrolean composer briefly quotes from ‘Das Wandern’.  Written in 2010-11 for tenor Mark Padmore, the cycle, originally for piano and voice, sets eight poems by Hans Aschenwald  and a further three by Alois Hotschnig; this was the world premire of Larcher’s new orchestrated version.

In a programme note, the composer explains that in orchestrating the work, ‘I wanted to let the sound-world of the piano (the ‘reflections’) explode …’, but in the brief fragment which forms the first song, ‘Ich schreibe heute durch’ (I will write the day through), it was Padmore whose strident tenor burst startlingly through the silence.  Such vocal flamboyance is rare in the cycle, however; more commonly the tenor line is restrained and reticent while the orchestral fabric elaborates and reflects.  In common with Schubert’s songs, Larcher’s texts explore the poets’ relationship with nature and the landscape through the changing seasons, but the balance between voice and accompaniment is very different from Schubert’s mutual musical narrative.  The texts are short – most only a few lines, some just a handful of words – and their sentiments elusive; Padmore pronounced the text quietly but with intensity and meticulousness, and was then silent for long expanses of instrumental exploration.

The vocal writing does seem wonderfully suited to the expressive range and depth of Padmore’s voice.  The composer himself remarks that ‘[i]n Mark Padmore I found a companion willing to join me in entering remote musical territory, someone with the courage and openness to hold back his voice at many stages so that it would sound brittle and fragile as well as very exposed, yet all the while his voice remained extremely precise and present’.  I don’t think I can describe the effect of Padmore’s extremely moving performance more accurately and persuasively than this.

In the aphoristic ‘Almauftrieb’ (‘Transhumance’), initially the tenor’s pianissimo was a delicate thread, dark tuba and bass offering a shadowy counterweight, before growing in portentousness; ‘Los los’ (‘Come, Come on’) was similarly veiled, the frail vocal line complemented by shrouded horn.  The closing lines of ‘Lange zögern die steine’ (‘The stones hesitate for a long time’) took Padmore to the highest range, the voice – pure and serene – perched terrifyingly aloft, as if suspended above vast spaces, as the gnomic text trailed away into inconclusiveness.  There were brief moments of vocal assertion – as with the metaphoric image of a ‘vicious hound’ in ‘Dein wort mein blindenhund’ (‘Your word is my guide dog’); and in ‘Ferdi’ (‘Freddy’), the most expansive number of the cycle, Padmore was able to indulge in more poignant yearning.

While I was not totally convinced by the texts themselves – my German is inadequate to comment on the quality of these poems, but in translation they recalled Imagist brevity without the definition of a central ‘image’ – Larcher’s instrumental ‘reflections’ on the potential meaning of these equivocal utterances is often striking.  Small pinpoints of light seem to expand, forming glistening rainbows, and then retreat to shadows.  Harp and piano were used to strong effect in ‘Ferdi’, creating first a gentle warmth, then the glassy depths of the rolling waters into which the protagonist slips.  Such moments were at times quite mesmerising.

‘Mesmerising’ is a word frequently used to describe John Adams’ Harmonium (1980) but the performance given in the second half of the concert was disappointingly unengaging.  The BBC Symphony Chorus was in full voice, and there was some particularly strong singing from tenors and basses, as they negotiated the high-lying lines, although I found the soprano tone a little thin at times.  But, the diction was quite poor and the repetitions of the texts – settings of John Donne and Emily Dickinson – lacked definition and thus impact.  Gardner at times did manage to create propulsion, most powerfully in the first movement, ‘Negative Love’, and in the more rapid shifts of harmony in ‘Wild Nights’, urging the wave-like pulsing onward; he was given sterling assistance by timpanist Paul Philbert.  As in the Schubert, dynamic contrasts were emphasised, but the textural contrasts between the densest terrains and the most transparent spaces were less successfully delineated.  There were some grand gestures but, overall, the performance lacked a sense of inexorable journeying to an inevitable destination.

Claire  Seymour



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