United Kingdom Schubert, Mahler and Beethoven: Brett Polegato (baritone), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / David Afkham (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 14:1:2015 (GR).
Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Op 62
Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer)
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D944 (‘Great C Major’).
Dating from 1807, Beethoven’s Overture is believed to be the only surviving music he composed for his colleague Heinrich von Collin’s stage production of Coriolan. By all accounts a below par reworking of Shakespeare’s bloodthirsty Romanesque tragedy Coriolanus, it serves as a juicy opener to many a mixed-composer concert. And this was the case here as the young German conductor David Afkham and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra began their matinée performance on Jan 14th 2015. They delivered eight minutes of drama that made me wish that more of the master’s Op 62 might have been saved (if Beethoven had indeed written more for Collin’s play). The first few bars created an immediate intensity to the proceedings – Afkham seemed to have lost no time in striking a rapport with the CBSO. The cut-offs between the rests and the solid opening chords were clinically abrupt and accentuated the motif that symbolised the violent nature of the character Coriolanus. In sharp contrast was the pacifying nature of the second theme, said to be representative of the prayers of the Roman warrier’s woman-folk. But the work is not a narration of his exploits, more a dialogue of his inner conflicts. Having sided with his former opponents, the Volscians, his military instincts waged against familial loyalty, factions that musically collide when C minor is pitted against E flat major and stridently emphasised by Afkham and his players. This struggle leads inevitably to the death of Coriolanus, graphically portrayed as the music wasted away in the final bars. Handling its miscellany of themes, pauses, rhythms, colours and dynamics are critical to a reception of this piece – and Afkham and CBSO got it spot on.
Afkham demonstrated his orchestral accompaniment skills in the second item: Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) with baritone Brett Polegato sharing the podium. Throughout, the woodwind section provided magnificent support with clarinettists Oliver Janes and Joanna Patton getting things off to a cracking start in Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When my darling has her wedding). Billed as a much sought-after lyric-baritone, I expected a more tender ‘ich’ as this wayfarer retired into his ‘traurigen Tag’ and I would have liked more contrast in the middle section as the beauty of the world is envisaged, prior to gloom overtaking him again. Mahler’s love of nature came across in the second movement, ‘Ging heut Morgen übers Feld’ (I Went This Morning over the Field) with the flutes of Marie-Christine Zupancic and Veronika Klirova prominent, yet this joyful mood did not seem reflected in Polegato’s body language;. However his closing Nein, nein, das ich mein, mir nimmer kann! did carry the right timbre. The despair of the wayfarer reached a climax in ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ (I have a gleaming knife) mirrored by some ferocious string playing and although Polegato’s diction was always excellent, I did not experience the sheer agony the text portrays; any sensations of the cold steel were absent. The fourth song ‘Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz’ (The two blue eyes of my beloved) provides a resolution to the cycle, notable for its reference to an attachment Mahler had with the singer Johanna Richter from the Kassel Opera House. It also contains a mention of the Lindenbaum, following in the footsteps of his Germanic forefather Franz Schubert and his Winterreise (Winter Journey). All round this was the best execution of the four songs with Polegato’s fine communication of the dénouement and the soloist on the same wavelength as Afkham and the CBSO players.
The empathy Afkham had clearly struck with the CBSO continued in the main contribution to the matinée, Schubert’s Symphony No 9, the Great C Major. Above all they conveyed the expansive nature of the piece, driving relentlessly forward with a meaningful and measured pace, yet never losing sight of the plethora of Schubertian melody that infuses the 1825 score. The horn section got the Andante section of the first movement off to a glorious start (worthy of them being the first orchestral section to be signalled out by Afkham at the close) their beautiful theme suggestive of the beginning of a country stroll, a walk which other sections of the orchestra took turns to lead: the strings led by Laurence Jackson eagerly took up the motif, sonorously echoed by the woodwind. As the opening movement continued the trombone section of Edward Jones, Anthony Howe and David Vines (bass trombone) were soon demonstrating their strapping dexterities, adding their variation to the opening theme, enthusiastically taking the lyrical lead. In his pre-concert address CBSO violinist David Gregory had drawn attention to the symphony’s extensive use of trombones and enlisted the help of the CBSO three-man section to prove his point; we saw what he meant! Afkham moved effortlessly into the Allegro ma non troppo section, vividly highlighting the variety of colours Schubert used to expand his sonata form.
Reminiscent of one of the composer’s characteristic Marches Militaires the second movement featured some delightful oboe playing from Rainer Gibbons, instilling an edginess to the proceedings with his delivery. After a poignant horn solo there was an arresting dissonant climactic blast as the trombones took centre stage once more (as Gregory had explained, Schubert was encouraging their role from a bit time player to be an orchestral member in their own right, a far cry from, say, their traditional use as a symbolic representation of the underworld). This Andante con moto is one of those pieces of music where the main theme invariably produces an involuntary movement on the listener despite the A minor key – this was no exception along our row. The following Scherzo was true to its Allegro vivace marking, Afkham creating a busy feeling all round, now using whole body movements, arms, hands and fingers to lead from the front. There was an impressive sense of drive as might be expected from a thirty-one year old destined for the Spanish National Orchestra in 2015/16; utilising such rhythmic energy on traditional Spanish music is an exciting prospect. The melodic ideas of Schubert continued in the extended sonata form of the Finale. One phrase, as David Gregory had pointed out, is a real test of stamina for the strings and one which the CBSO section survived, seemingly with something to spare at the close of the 1154th bar. Another pointed theme is Schubert’s variation on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, part of his inspiration for this monumental composition. In keeping with its adoption as a symbol of European Unity, there was a harmonious togetherness between Afkham and his orchestra, providing a hugely enjoyable matinée performance.