Terfel’s vividly communicative Brahms and Gardner and LPO’s youthful Schoenberg

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Schoenberg: Sir Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 19.3.2022. (MB)

Edward Gardner conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra (c) Mark Allan

Mendelssohn – Overture: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op.21
Brahms, orch. Karl Michael Komma – Vier ernste Gesänge, Op.121
Schoenberg – Pelleas und Melisande, Op.5

Chaste, yet ravishing, London Philharmonic Orchestra’s woodwind announced Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture as they meant to go on, combining precision and spirit like the orchestra as a whole. Edward Gardner’s account, sometimes hard-driven in the manner of Toscanini, yet not without flexibility, indeed increasingly so, had a strong sense both of harmonic rhythm and dramatic incident. The (apparently) effortless tension of the development, subsiding into touching exhaustion at its close, attested to fine understanding of Mendelssohn’s structure and form. Then magic was reignited. Above all, it made me smile.

Sir Bryn Terfel joined the orchestra for Brahms’s Four Serious Songs, singing from memory. The programme note oddly had nothing to say of the orchestral arrangement by Karl Michael Komma (1913-2012). Nor did it so much as mention Komma himself, a Sudeten German composer whose record during the NS-Zeit, writing a cantata to celebrate the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia and a pamphlet ‘against’ Mahler, might have warranted a mention. I say that not to argue for proscription, nor for or against anything else, but silence seemed a questionable tactic. What we heard was a perfectly decent orchestration that lacked the intrinsic interest of true recreation — think, say, of Berio’s Brahms — but permitted the work more readily to enter a large hall. It was not unimaginative, variegated lower strings setting the scene well for the first song, a wandering clarinet solo at the close of the fourth both fitting in itself and testament to wider knowledge of late Brahmsian idiom. If ultimately, it shed no particular light and had me missing the piano, nor did it truly get in the way, though perhaps it encouraged a more hectoring side to some of Terfel’s delivery than might otherwise have been the case.

There was, in any case, no gainsaying the vividly communicative aspect of Terfel’s art, still very much that of a prophetic Elijah, as for instance in the agitated central stanza of the opening ‘Denn es gehet dem Menschen’. Terfel’s attention to detail, with short, sharp crescendo, followed by finely controlled, longer decrescendo, on the preceding ‘denn es ist alles eitel’ was never pedantic, always at the expressive service of his performance. There were other such instances aplenty. A finely shaded ‘Ich wandte mich’ and stentorian ‘O Tod, wie bitter bist du’ were likewise well judged, as was the change of tone for the final song, still serious yet less dark. Strength in knowledge and in world-weariness too was the order of the day.

Schoenberg would not, I think, have been impressed by the evasiveness of that programme note. Whether he would have been impressed by this performance of Pelleas und Melisande, I honestly do not know. I suspect his response would have depended on the fluctuating condition of his relationship with Richard Strauss. For Gardner’s imperative here, aided by scene-setting, including quotation, in titles above the stage (oddly not used for the Brahms), was very much that of event and incident. A duly questing opening, lines curled as if from a Jugendstil sketch, tending already towards the counterpoint of the First Chamber Symphony, ensured that motivic density registered, For the most part, though, Brahmsian inheritance was not where emphasis lay. Propelled both by the performance’s insistence and by visual cues above, I found myself imagining a silent film, replete with exaggerated, expressionist gestures. The LPO strings ‘spoke’ in almost operatic, or rather Wagnerian, fashion, attesting to their deep experience in that repertoire.

A resplendent phantasmagoria — again, Strauss would surely have been impressed — announced the ‘scene’ at the tower, looking forward also to Schoenberg’s later orchestration of the third part of Gurrelieder. The pool in the castle vaults was stagnant indeed, drawing its aural stench from the world of Götterdämmerung. And there was true pain, in (non-emancipated) dissonance as the lovers bade each other farewell. Tumultuous, terrifying chaos prior to Melisande’s final rest emerged as a dark, even sick transformation of Wotan’s putting Brünnhilde to sleep. The story, for that emphatically is what it was, oozed with malevolence, though not exclusively. It was all very much a youthful reading, far less forbidding than often one hears. That is not to say that it was jejune, only different — and, after all, Schoenberg was young when he wrote the piece. Such may not be the whole (meta-)story of this extraordinary work, but perhaps no single performance can be. It certainly seemed to gain converts to Schoenberg’s cause, which can only be a good thing.

Mark Berry

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