German Adventures—Romance and Conflict

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Strauss, Wagner, Weill: Jennifer Johnston (mezzo), BBC Philharmonic / Martyn Brabbins (conductor), BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 28.6.2017. (RBa)

Strauss – Four Symphonic Interludes from Intermezzo, Op 72a

Wagner – Wesendonck Lieder

Kurt Weill – Symphony No.2

Martyn Brabbins is a veteran conductor with brimming energy, an unextravagant stick style and a taste for unusual repertoire. After the BBCPO’s extended British music series it was Brabbins they turned to for this all-German programme broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

Strauss’s Interludes from his opera Intermezzo—or is that Intermezzos from Interlude—provided a four-part summation of this composer’s style. It amounts to a loosely rhapsodic symphony in the pattern adopted for spin-off concert works from operas by Pfitzner and Hindemith. Travel Fever and Waltz Scene has all the stressed lyrical exuberance of the Don Juan of Strauss’s youth: horn heroics match furiously swooning interpolations from the front-bench principal strings. Its part-abandoned and part-cynical “carousel” motion made me think of Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde. I had recently heard Fireside Dreams in a recording by Semyon Bychkov. It is a gently passionate creation in which strings predominate. First Horn and First Trumpet distinguish themselves by meshing seamlessly into the predominance of luxurious violin and viola lines—unforced and natural. Korngold and Waxman must have been listening at the time. At the Card Table is all confidences and petulance and all nicely voiced by the string principals. This intimate miniature comes and goes in a flicker. The brusque whooping uproar of Happy Ending serves its purpose well.

It was a pity that the mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn had to drop out. I had very much wanted to hear Zemlinsky’s Maeterlinck Songs. That said, Jennifer Johnston in the Wesendonck Lieder (presumably the Felix Mottl orchestration) was no also-ran. Her voice balances pinpoint control with a passionate power that reaches out to the listener. There is also an evident concern to live and shape the words. She and the orchestra shone in ‘Im Treibhaus’, a study for Tristan und Isolde. The delicately spun sound-world of that song registered quite breathlessly—a very special experience. Beside it the next song, ‘Schmerzen’, seemed tawdry but that is down to Wagner.

Kurt Weill’s three-movement Second Symphony showed this composer as the master of mood ambivalence. Each of his catchy ideas has a rapid instability flickering backwards and forwards between determined aggression, naïve exultation and urgently expressed melody. Small note-cells step out like an impudent ‘Good Soldier Schweik’. They are driven by dynamic impulse that rarely lets up. Those cells are rich in potential, evolve naturally and reappear in kinetic splendour. The first movement swings along but makes way for a Largo that is more of an awed cortege than anything else. Instrumental detail registered well in this dark-toned score. All credit to many starring contributions, not least the rip-tide two-piccolo episode in the finale and the writing for two scorchingly acrid trumpets in the Largo. The orchestra appeared completely engaged throughout—this was a performance and not a mere exercise in revival. There has to be something good going on when, as happened this afternoon. I found myself involuntarily smiling at the music-making and the musicians’ delight in Weill’s superb invention.

Rob Barnett

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