United Kingdom Bach, Hindemith, Wagner and Strauss: Angel Blue (soprano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / John Mauceri (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 28.4.2017. (AS)
Bach (arr. Schoenberg) – Prelude and Fugue in E flat, St Anne
Hindemith – Nobilissima Visione – Suite
Wagner (arr. Stokowski) – Parsifal, Act III – excerpts
Strauss – Vier letzte Lieder, Op. posth
This programme was part of the LPO’s year-long concert-planning theme of “Belief and Beyond Belief”. As the orchestra’s Artistic Advisor Vladimir Jurowski has admitted, this is “probably the most all-encompassing theme we could find”, and certainly the list of works involved seems to be pretty wide-ranging in its nature. So here we had religious spirituality in Bach, also in the Hindemith item and Wagner’s Parsifal, plus Strauss’s end of life sentiments. All the works were given clear, informative spoken introductions by the conductor, John Mauceri.
There’s an odd paradox in that although it is perfectly acceptable for a whole evening of Bach to be played on a modern concert grand piano, large-scale performances of the composer’s orchestral works (I use the word “orchestral’ deliberately) have been banished from concert halls. It shouldn’t happen too often, perhaps, but how good it would be to hear the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto with a modern pianoforte pitted against a full body of deep-toned strings; or the Third Suite played by a big orchestra in the grand manner of old.
One way of sneaking Bach into concert halls is via arrangements such as the one we heard in this concert. The printed programme studiously added a BWV catalogue number to its listing of the Bach/Schoenberg work, but the Viennese master’s orchestration bears little relation to the original piece for organ. The use of a large orchestra including percussion instruments, harp and celesta represents a clear twentieth-century imprint on the music, but Schoenberg’s instrumental definition of Bach’s lines and structures has masterful clarity, and the true spirit of Bach is somehow well preserved. John Mauceri’s performance concentrated less on bringing out Schoenberg’s piquant timbres and more on preserving the linear flow of Bach’s creative inspiration, to good effect.
The music of Paul Hindemith has practically vanished from the concert scene (though I see that one work of his, the Mathis der Maler Symphony, will actually be played at the Proms this year). It’s true that he wrote an awful lot of music, that some of it is pretty dry and some of it written for didactic purposes, but at its best it is surely on a par with the music of his contemporaries, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. If only Hindemith had a tenth of these composers’ exposure in concert programmes. The suite from his 1938 ballet Nobilissima Visione, a work that evokes scenes in the life of St Francis of Assisi, is masterly in its evocation of varying moods of exultation, calm contemplation and even brutality as a group of medieval soldiers assault and rob a victim. Heard live, it is possible to marvel at the composer’s mastery of the orchestra more than in even the clearest recording: Mauceri’s placing of first violins on the left and second violins on the right was here very effective, particularly in fugal passages.
The performance seemed absolutely perfect to me. Tempi were just as they should be, sonorities and instrumental colouring were finely judged, and the conductor simply let the music unfold without any fussy pointing of phrase: rhythms were maintained in a constant manner, but they always had plenty of life.
More aged readers may remember coming across dusty old brown HMV albums containing 78s of Wagner’s music, in which the conductor Leopold Stokowski had arranged “symphonic syntheses” of the composer’s operas. Purists turned their noses up at these offerings, but there’s no doubt that they brought the experience of Wagner to a wider audience. More recently these creations have been re-recorded, and here was a live performance of Stokowski’s treatment of music from Act III of Parsifal. The phrase “symphonic synthesis” was avoided in the programme titling, with the more anodyne term “excerpts” substituted, but in his introduction John Mauceri, who studied with Stokowski, let slip the original designation. No doubt in the interests of authenticity he then abandoned his baton for this one item, and shaped the music with his hands, à la Stokowski. And somehow, with adroit creation and maintenance of atmosphere and tension, he made the arrangement, with its bits taken from here and there in the score, into a valid orchestral entity.
The Four Last Songs of Strauss have of course become a regular concert item, though not usually at the end of a programme, as here. This placement was however, effective, given the texts’ end of life sentiments. The American soprano Angel Blue sang with tonal beauty and warmth of expression, and hers was a most satisfying performance.