Prom Focus Falls on Dutilleux in Salonen Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 32 – Schoenberg, Dutilleux, Mahler:  David Wilson-Johnson (narrator); Joshua Albuquerque, Matthew Gillam, Lucas Pinto (trebles); Philharmonia Voices (men’s voices); Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen. Royal Albert Hall, London, 8.8.2016. (CC)

Schoenberg: A Survivor from Warsaw

Dutilleux: The Shadows of Time

Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D

It has been a good season for Mahler so far, what with Bernard Haitink’s magnificent Third with the London Symphony Orchestra as a notable peak. This Mahler First was another memorable achievement. But unlike the Third, the First requires bedfellows of an evening, and two works that dealt with war matters occupied the first half: Schoenberg’s harrowing Survivor from Warsaw and Dutilleux’s The Shadows of Time (1995-97), whose third movement of which is dedicated to “Anne Frank and all the innocent children of the World,” and which features three treble soloists.

David Wilson-Johnson stood in for Simon Russell Beale, the originally advertised soloist in the Schoenberg. As the excellent booklet annotator states (Seen and Heard International’s very own Dr. Mark Berry), A Survivor from Warsaw “draws upon Expressionist ghosts ” of Schoenberg’s youth, and “perhaps even upon Mahlerian precedent.” A short piece, in musical terms it draws on a variety of expressive means, culminating in the dodecaphony of the final choral section. In linguistic terms it is equally diverse, requiring three languages (two from the speaker, German and English, and one, Hebrew, from the male chorus for “Sh’ma Yisroel”). Cleanliness of orchestral texture is pretty much a given with Salonen, and this was no exception; particularly, perhaps, the razor-sharp trumpet fanfares. The experienced David Wilson-Johnson was superb in his Sprechgesang delivery, with only the occasional smudge in his words (“Whether you slept or whether worries kept you …); the sheer speed of the Feldwebel’s (German) commands was miraculously done, though, as was the speaker’s powerful shout of “Sh’ma Yisroel” that immediately precedes the choral finale. There, the Male Voices of the Philharmonia Chorus were magnificent, the text (from Deuteronomy) perfectly delivered with exemplary diction and heartfelt fervour.

The music of Henri Dutilleux has for some reason never been fully appreciated in the country, despite the sterling efforts of the Chandos record label. Three trebles feature in the third movement, “Mémoire des ombres”. The short text (by the composer) is simply “Pourquoi nous? Pourquoi l’étoile” – “Why us? Why the star?”; the three named trebles here appear to all be members of Trinity School, Croydon. This piece is the first large-scale work by Dutilleux to carry a vocal soloist. The first movement, “Les heures” (The Hours) is characterised by pealing, bell-like trumpets (superb here) and tick-tock percussion representing the unstoppable nature of time itself. The movement is dominated by brass, and the phenomenal virtuosity of the Philharmonia brass was, it turned out, a pre-echo of their excellence in the Mahler. The second movement, “Ariel maléfique”. Painting the dark shadow side of the Shakespeare sprite, is a luxuriant, fascinating soundscape that at one point seems to reference jazz. The trebles, singing from memory, excelled in the poignant third movement, “Mémoires des ombres”, a movement that also held glorious woodwind harmonies.

It is the fourth movement, “Vagues de lumière” that, according to Dutilleux, is the piece’s ray of light. Messiaen-like sonorities, astonishingly mobile double-basses and the interesting gesture of ascending timpani scales at the movement close lead into the final “Dominante bleue?”. Here it feels like all the strands come together: sonically gorgeous, the terrific Philharmonia string’s delicacy sat alongside bluesy muted trumpets and a simply wonderful trombone solo (Byron Fulcher).

Mahler’s First Symphony is arguably more rewarding to play (certainly if one is a brass player) than to listen to. In the wrong hands this finale can seem overlong; there is no true Mahler slow movement. Such statements, sometimes made by myself, were completely blown out of the water by Salonen’s rethink. This was a confident, resplendent performance that emerged as stratospherically high in the present writer’s tally (topped only by a performance in the early 1980s by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kubelík at the Hallé Proms, Manchester). Salonen’s X-Ray vision of scores enables magnificent transparency and wonderful balancing of textures. The dynamic range of the performance was noteworthy in that one repeatedly noticed the pregnant tension of the quieter sections – and quiet indeed they were, with ppps as impressive as huge tutti climaxes. Perhaps the initial easing into the Wunderhorn theme in the first movement (“Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld”) was a touch contrived, but the sheer understanding of the movement’s construction was almost beyond parallel. The ending to this first movement was no headlong rush, as one so often hears, but a fitting conclusion.

True, the plush Philharmonia Orchestra might not conjure up believable rusticity in the second movement, but the Trio was affectionately done. Salonen chose not to conduct, as far as I could see, the solo horn’s links between sections, just as he seemed to let the opening of the famous third movement unfold uninterrupted, only starting to beat at the entrance of the tuba’s statement of the theme. The marching band was beautifully characterised; just as the opening of the finale began with a proper orchestral scream, underpinned by thunderous timpani. But it was that long, rapt central section that provided the true highlight, full of a lyrical sense of longing and containing a monumental stillness that here held the heart of this great work. The standard of the brass playing throughout was astonishing, not least from the horns (who stood for the final peroration).

Let not my small caveats detract form the stature of this performance. This was a great Prom, and in fact the first of three consecutive evenings to feature the music of Dutilleux: Tout un monde lointain … appears in Prom 33 with the BBC Philharmonic, and Timbres, espace, movement snuggles next to H. K. Gruber and Beethoven in the BBC SO’s Prom 34 on Wednesday.

Colin Clarke

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