The Barbican Acoustic Works Against Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Larcher, and Mahler: Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano), Stuart Skelton (tenor), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 22.2.2019. (MB)

Mozart – Symphony No.35 in D major KV385, ‘Haffner’
Thomas Larcher – Nocturne – Insomnia
Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde

A strange concert, this, in which the Barbican Hall proved Mahler’s enemy in particular. In a half-reasonable world, London would have a decent orchestral concert hall; let us hope that plans to give the London Symphony Orchestra a new home will come to something sooner rather than later. The LSO sounds transformed when heard elsewhere – even at the more than problematical Royal Albert Hall for the Proms. Other orchestras, even when, like the BBC Symphony Orchestra, they play at the Barbican with some regularity, often experience greater difficulties. Woodwind playing in particular here sounded distinctly odd, even crude, at least from where I was seated; the sound could not remotely have corresponded to how the musicians were ‘really’ playing. A new hall cannot come soon enough.

The two pieces in the first half suffered less. Mozart’s Haffner Symphony had an excellent start, the first movement cultivated, warm, nicely phrased, and directed – if occasionally a little fussy. Its tonal and motivic drama registered with strength and meaning, having one marvel at the composer’s concision. The Andante had many similar virtues, yet ultimately Sakari Oramo’s vision had one missing both warmth and charm. It was very much on the fast side: not necessarily a problem in itself, had it yielded more. This was Mozart progressing efficiently rather than having us enter a garden of delights. If the minuet and trio were at times also a little plain, their direction was clear. The finale, alas, was driven so mercilessly as to lose much of its humanity. It can be taken as fleet as you like, but speed should never be an end in itself, still less a cause for hardening. If only the three succeeding movements had been at the same level as the first.

Thomas Larcher’s ensemble piece, Nocturne-Insomnia, was written in 2007-8 and revised in 2017. Its two parts correspond audibly and meaningfully to the two words of the title, so much so as to offer something not so very different from a post-romantic tone poem. We heard a keen ear for harmony and how to make broadly tonal harmonies sound once again new(ish). What one might have expected to sound commonplace here sounded hard-won, the first part strangely reminiscent of a Bruckner Adagio. The music wound down, as it had, in retrospect, wound up, leading us far from what we had been led to expect, insomnia upon us. Even the coda of apparent sleep at the close, high string harmonics and accordion, sounded provisional, ready to be disrupted.

Larcher’s piece received, for me at least, the most compelling performance, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde only intermittently convincing, let alone moving, until the great final movement. The ferocity of the opening took me by surprise, although it was probably more a matter of the congested Barbican acoustic than anything else. Stuart Skelton had no difficulty making himself heard in this ‘Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’, although his performance here and elsewhere was not without effort. (I suspect he may not have been well.) There was, rightly, bitter anger to be heard at times, for instance when he told us of the ‘wild-gespenstische Gestalt’ amongst the graves. At any rate, his diction was excellent, set against admirable orchestral clarity from the BBC SO and Oramo. The orchestra sounded as if framing a finely-etched painting in ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’. Set against the fine burgundy pinot noir of Elisabeth Kulman’s mezzo, all that lacked was a sense of the orchestral moments of painting coming to life, of movement rather than a frieze. It is autumn, after all, not winter. The third movement, ‘Von der Jugend’, would have benefited from greater charm, however ironic, though its chinoiserie was piquant enough. By now, alas, Skelton seemed all too audibly to be struggling.

Oramo’s stiffness of gear change in ‘Von der Schönheit’ sounded strange, as did the blatant vulgarity of the brass sound (again, perhaps partly the fault of the acoustic). It all sounded a little too close to Shostakovich. The more overtly inward moments of ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ fared better, the rest oddly unsettled. Nevertheless, the darkness of the opening to ‘Der Abschied’ sounded a necessary note of fatal certainty, at first a sharper-etched successor to the fourth movement of the Third Symphony, before proceeding along its own, very different path. The brook, ‘der Bach’, suggested a now unattainable Beethovenian pastorale: our glance back towards something no longer possible. If balances were often less than ideal, there remained something plausible to the alienation that even that elicited. At last, I realised what had truly been missing (as well as a better hall): a sense that this was symphony as much as song cycle. It was too late for that really to be put right, but the close, from that long orchestral interlude onwards, vouchsafed a taste of that richer alternative.

Mark Berry

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