Proms 65: Ligeti, Schoenberg, Mahler, Strauss | 66: Crumb

Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester/Nott | Booth, Summers, Nash Ensemble/Masson

Royal Albert Hall, 6 September 2009 5 stars | 5 stars

Jonathan Nott by Priska KettererJonathan Nott and the young players of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester were on astonishing form for their visit to the Proms. Showing fluency and flair across a fairly wide stylistic spectrum, Nott and the musicians clearly had both the technical and the expressive measure of each of the four works on the programme.

Playing to a packed and attentive hall, they opened with a focused reading of Ligeti's Atmosphères. The micropolyphonic textures of the work are formed out of deeply precise gradations of colour and tone, and as such require a certain deftness in the playing that is yet imbued with a boldness suitable to the spirit of the music. Nott duly coerced a delicacy from each section of the orchestra — particularly the centrifugal strings — that gave a wonderful smoothness to the performance. The music is about thresholds, thresholds of definition and ambiguity, and of movement and stasis. As the sound of brushed piano strings ebbed away towards a conclusion, the fundamental threshold of music, that between sound and silence, trembled.

Mahler's Kindertotenlieder came next, with baritone Matthias Goerne . Clearly this is home territory for the orchestra, and the clarity of their playing, particularly important after all in this lean, spare score full of Bach-indebted motifs and counterpoint, was strong. Nott delivered a certain warmth at points too, though, and he provoked a furious, more vividly-textured performance for the concluding 'In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus.' I last heard Goerne live late last year in the Queen Elizabeth Hall where he gave an extremely unconvincing interpretation of a new Thomas Larcher song-cycle; here he was much more assured, singing with fluidity of line and a persuasiveness of tragic character.

These high standards of interpretation were carried over into the second two works on the programme. Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces from 1909, like the Ligeti, looks in retrospect to have been deeply prescient of subsequent musical trends, anticipating as it did the drive towards abstraction and aggressive innovation that dominated the following half century of notated music. It always amazes me that the tonal and expressionist scores of Schoenberg are not heard more in concert. The force of their expression, when delivered well, can rival that of any of the more central works of the late-Romantic repertoire.

To whit, Nott and his players' thunderous performance of the Five Orchestral Pieces. The 'Pieces,' as indicated by their designation, are designed in opposition to normal symphonic principles of overall cohesion. Despite this, their shared vividness of colour, their comparable forms and thematic designs, and their dynamic cragginess mean they make particular sense when combined together as a single unit. By now the players were chomping at the bit; each of Schoenberg's lightning-bolt gestures came with a force of conviction that was stunning to witness, whilst the luminous colours of 'Farben' were as yielding and permeable as those of the Ligeti. The concluding Also sprach Zarathustra crystallised the different musical and interpretative skills displayed thus far in a rip-roaring, yet at the same time meticulously wrought, translation of Strauss' dialectic on Nietzsche's ideas surrounding the relationship between humanity and nature. Politely rejecting the adulatory audience's stomping pleas for an encore, Nott and his player's finally departed the stage after eight separate bows.

Hilary SummersThe second Prom of the evening, though quite different in character from the first, was, amazingly, as impressive. Given by members of the Nash Ensemble with Diego Masson conducting, this late, late Prom (10.15 - 11.45) was defined by shadow and mystery. The concert was solely dedicated to the music of George Crumb. Crumb — 80 this year — is an American composer who has become somewhat neglected in recent years, though his most famous works from the late sixties and seventies (from when all the works heard here came) are well enough represented on disc.

Like some of his European contemporaries, Crumb's works often pivot crucially on theatrical gestures and on dramatic strategies, such as having instrumentalists speak lines of poetry (usually from Lorca, whose poetry featured in two of the three works heard here), move about or off the stage, sing, or adorn themselves with masks or costumes. This ritual-theatrical aspect, heightened by darkening of light or even, in the case of Vox Balanae (Voice of the Whale), bathing the stage in blue light to evoke the sea, is central to the dramatic-poetic impact of the music. Each piece is wrapped up in the total context of its transmission. The precision of each gesture is matched within the music, where refined distinctions of colour and tone mark out the syntax of these spare but intermittently turbulent scores. There is a refreshing humility to the music and the total presentations, though, which is alien to others who come to mind as allied to Crumb in approach, Stockhausen for example.

As the lights of the Albert Hall went down on the by now fairly sparse crowd, and Verity Sharp concluded her introduction (the concert was going out live on BBC Radio 3), the small but unusually disposed ensemble of instruments (including Chinese temple gong, kabuki blocks, Tibetan prayer stones, African thumb piano, and banjo (played bottleneck style) and players began the enigmatic Night of the Four Moons, on fragments from poems by Lorca. The players gave a remarkable performance; the tense projections of ambivalence in the face of the rhetoric of the triumphalist space race were as obscure in gesture as they were direct in affect. The contralto Hilary Summers imbued the texts with a bewitching, almost ineffable, quality. The overall sense of grace in the movement towards the inevitable Farewell conclusion, where each player leaves the stage to the accompaniment of sustained cello harmonic, before joining together off stage in elegiac, quickly-fading music, was stunning.

The oblique delineation of whale song in Vox Balanae is realised through amplified slide piano, electric flute, and electric cello. Typically, Crumb explores a peripheral, indirect account of whale song. Hazy glissandi on the piano match swoops and phantasmic textures in the scordatura cello and flute, each and together recalling both the underwater character of whale song, and its languid and bulky gait. Players wear half-masks to symbolise, in telling contrast to the conquering strains of the Strauss, which the work actually quotes at various points, the engulfing, impersonal force of nature, and the insignificance of humanity.

The closing Ancient Voices of Children again used quotation, theatre, expansive belabouring of sound with silence, primal strains of rhythm and tone, and exotic timbres (in that case a soprano singing into the echo chamber of amplified piano, and a quarter-tone tuned mandolin), to evoke an essentially humble dramatic program centred on a rapprochement between 'man' and one of his opposites, children there, nature in Vox Balanae. In all of the works the dramatic elements were compelling for not being authoritative, and seductive through being animated by such unique, spectral, musical textures. The performances matched the quiet daring of the writing, leaving the sepulchred crowd in the dark hall thoroughly moved by what they had witnessed.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Jonathan Nott by Priska Ketterer, and Hilary Summers


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