Fascinating Bruckner Proms evening from the Berlin Phil, also notable for its stunning Schnittke

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2022 [27], Prom 65 – Schnittke, Bruckner: Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Berliner Philharmoniker / Daniel Harding (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 4.9.2022. (CC)

Daniel Harding (conductor) and Tabea Zimmermann (viola) © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Schnittke – Viola Concerto (1985)

Bruckner – Symphony No.4 in E flat, ‘Romantic’ (second version, 1881, ed. Korstvedt)

The official line for the change of conductor was, ‘due to a serious foot injury and subsequent surgery, chief conductor Kirill Petrenko has been ordered by his doctor to take further rest and therefore will not conduct the second of his two Proms with the Berliner Philharmoniker, on Sunday 4 September (Prom 65). He will still conduct the first Prom (Prom 62).’ In the event, it gave those who heard both Proms to experience the difference between truly great performance in the first instance, and superb execution.

The Mahler Seventh the night before (review click here) had been a defining experience, one of a small handful of Proms over decades that rise to the status of the unforgettable, of once-in-a-lifetime experiences of the sublime. Here, in contrast, was an interesting coupling led by a conductor with excellent technique and heard in impeccable performances. If one hadn’t heard Prom 63, all would have been well, perhaps.

A composer known for his polystylism, Schnittke completed the Viola Concerto just days before a debilitating stroke. Tabea Zimmermann met Schnittke at the Lockenhaus Festival, describing him as a ‘humble man’ and that this ‘very personal’ piece concerned his struggle enduring life in the Soviet Union.

Schnittke scores for strings without violins, so the ‘leader’ who walked on stage was actually the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Principal Viola, Amihai Grosz. A harpsichord, celesta and piano are placed where the violins would normally sit. The piece is dark of hue, cast in three movements (slow-fast-slow, two Largos surrounding a central Allegro vivace) but with a sense of continuation throughout. The harmonic/melodic material is derived from the name of its dedicatee, Yuri Bashmet: B (flat)- AS (Es = E flat) – CH (B natural) – (m) – E – (t). Bashmet, incidentally, performed the work three times at the Proms himself (1989, 1996 and 2006).

The expressive, short Largo that opens holds much beauty and, when the viola trills and completes a cadence against a solo bassoon, we get a clear Baroque reference that, on immediate repetition, is subsumed via harmonic twist into Schnittke’s own vocabulary (the cadential figure is to return later in the piece, to great Affekt). Zimmermann’s projection was perfectly judged, her concentration complete, her sound beautiful, her tuning beyond criticism. The frenzied central panel is described in Alexander Ivashkin’s Prom booklet notes as a ‘vulgar bacchanalia consisting of a brutal fusion of waltz, polka, can-can and Soviet military march’. Later, in the third movement, a trombone chorale makes a deep impression, invoking, of course, Russian Orthodoxy. A moment of heartfelt, pure nostalgia in this finale was enough to bring a tear to the eye (characteristically, the ‘pure’ bit does not last long before the Schnittke harmonic corkscrew turns). Zimmermann’s cadenza was a mesmeric thing of tortured beauty, the pizzicato – performed while sustaining arco – like the tolling of an ominous drum. How cheeky, in one sense, but also destabilising, are the piano ultra-staccatissimo bass notes against a more placid surface – pure Schnittke destabilisation. At times, one laughed because of the sheer cleverness of its all, but there is no denying the tears underneath. As the finale unravels, that Baroque cadence morphs into a heartfelt Urschrei from the soloist. The slow processional of the close, with a ghostly chilling harpsichord creating a striking sonority, was unforgettable, as were Zimmermann’s solo lines in response, with their pleading keenings,

Those who, like myself, know the piece from Nobuko Imai’s BIS recording (Malmö / Markiz) might find the Zimmermann gives the impression of a different, more persuasive piece. My previous ambivalence regarding Schnittke’s Viola Concerto has, thanks to this performance, been replaced by wholehearted admiration.

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms 2022 © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

When one enters the world of Bruckner, one finds forests, horns, towering cathedrals of sound and … editions. Another forest, if you will. The two most prominent editions of the Fourth known to record collectors, certainly, are those by Robert Haas and Leopold Nowak. Of the latter, to quote Wikipedia, ‘Nowak issued critical editions of the original 1874 version (1975), the 1886 version (1953) and the Volksfest finale of the 1878 version (1981), as well as a new edition of the 1881 version (1981)’. In September 2021, Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra presented Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs’s 2021 edition for the Bruckner Urtext Gesamtausgabe, Vienna (review click here), along with the ‘Volksfest’ finale (1878) and a discarded Scherzo (1874 but, if you can believe it, in the 1876 revision).

What we heard here is Benjamin M. Korstvedt’s 2019 modern edition of the 1881 score (itself sometimes known as the ‘Karlsrühe version’). Perhaps the central question in all of this Urtexterie is not about Bruckner’s indecision or lack of confidence but, from an analytical standpoint, whether, or how, these changes affect the listener’s perception of structure. Are these different versions (depending on how one numbers them, three or four, because you can have a IIa and a IIb) increasing in success? Do the foundations of Bruckner’s sonic cathedrals get firmer and safer as time goes on? How does the near-wholesale replacement of a movement affect us? Or are they all equally valid, just cathedrals of different shapes with slightly different nooks and crannies? Perhaps in one version we simply wander into a different alcove of the same building than in another?

What differences are most obvious? There is a significant change to the slow movement that will surely be audible, plus much of the Finale. In the slow movement, there is a quiet passage (dialogues between solo instruments and strings) before the final stretch of that movement. It is possible that latter passage was never performed publicly.

And to make our minds up, do we need a great conductor? Because a substandard one can cause even the greatest edifice to crumble, no matter what the organisation. There was hardly a mention of the edition in the booklet notes nor in the radio commentary, and yet the score used also irrefutably colours our experience of the work. While we were transported to an Austro-Germanic Urwald for the opening and introduced to the beautiful and rock-solid horn calls of Stefan Dohr (who uses no bumper and clearly has lips of steel – this after Mahler 7 the night before!), as Bruckner’s processes kicked in it was difficult to feel the overarching vision. Here we heard technical perfection: brass beyond compare as a unit, supremely balanced; clarinet, flute and oboe solos beyond compare; strings of preternatural ensemble. And yet the silences could have held more tension, the crescendos more energy, the arrival points more release.

The Andante, quasi allegretto was a triumph, though, deeply hymnic at times, perfectly paced with utter concentration throughout so that that climax appeared as a natural peak. The tightly drawn contrasts of the Scherzo and Trio, horns straining at the bit to hunt while the Trio was simply caressed into existence.

The Finale is perfect for the Berliners’ antiphonal layout. Taken at quite a lick, it contains some remarkable moments, including one of deliberate asynchrony and a plateau that verged on the edge of audibility before the long build up to the close. We take a different way through the forest to the same destination, arguably (do we see that final destination in the same light, though? Is it in fact the same ‘place’?). The movement is full of surprises, a stuttering trumpet climax among them. Once can easily hear why that ‘asynchronous moment’ might not have made it to the final cut – any lesser orchestra and it would just sound wrong.

A fascinating evening, notable for a stunning account of the Schnittke Viola Concerto and the interest of hearing this particular edition of Bruckner’s Fourth. And Petrenko’s Mahler 7 did, after all, set a supremely high bar.

Colin Clarke

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