On paper, this looked like a cleverly put together programme. It would start with the prelude to Lohengrin, which is meant to be a musical depiction of a flight of angels descending to earth with the Grail, and their ascent back to heaven. The end, meanwhile, was to be Strauss's very earthly evocation of the ascent and descent of an Alpine mountain and all the natural delights to be experienced along the way. What threw a spanner into the nicely balanced scheme was the unknown of the evening, the UK premiere of American composer Gunther Schuller's Where the Word Ends.
Conductor Semyon Bychkov led the Wagner as if it were a prelude to the following Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. The style of the playing was almost like a John Eliot Gardiner period instrument performance of Bach: a delicate, pure tone with only a hint of vibrato. And the rhythm and intonation were placed with pinpoint accuracy. But this was anything but soulless playing, instead demonstrating a carefully calibrated restraint designed to leave the audience craving more.
Viviane Hagner charmed everyone in the hall with her delightful performance of Mendelssohn's Concerto. Again, 'restraint' was the watchword here. This wasn't one of those histrionic performances full of flamboyant gestures. In the spirit of a piece for which ornamentation always has a musical point, Hagner always put Mendelssohn's beautiful violin writing in the spotlight. Her relaxed stage presence and polished, sweet tone gave an air of intimacy to the quieter music of the first movement and that seemingly infinite melody of the slow movement. In the finale she was fleet-footed through the speedy figuration and appeared to be genuinely enjoying herself. A rare memorable performance of this old concert warhorse.
What should have been the summit of the concert was the moment in Strauss's An Alpine Symphony when the nameless protagonist reaches the top of the mountain and stops to survey the landscape that surrounds him. However, everything that one expects to enjoy in a Strauss tone poem—melodic and harmonic invention and stunning orchestral effects—was knocked into a cocked hat by Schuller's When the Word Ends, written four years ago to celebrate both his eightieth birthday and the 125th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Strauss's long trek seemed dull and pedestrian next to the sheer sonic revelry of Schuller's scoring. Particularly impressive was the way he used the space in the orchestra, the sound ricocheting back and forward between piano on the right and percussion on the left, or waves of sound pulsating through the woodwinds and then brass.
Strauss seemed to be spinning out a paucity of material to pad out his 50 minutes, meaning a lot of seat shifting and ceiling staring in the audience. Schuller's 25 minutes, on the other hand, were bursting at the seams with fresh ideas; most of the audience seemed mesmerized. No one can accuse Strauss of not being able to knock out a good tune, and there are plenty on offer in this symphony. But Schuller's 'third stream' fusion between jazz and classical has got that base covered too, with satisfying fragments of melody popping out of the texture in unexpected places. Go and check it out on iPlayer while you still have time.
Between the tightly controlled but exquisite beauty of the strings in Wagner, Hagner's endearing performance of Mendelssohn, and the exhilaration of Schuller's new work, it was a great first half. But I think the audience and the orchestra were all a bit too worn out afterwards to go mountain climbing.
By Marc Brooks
Photo: Viviane Hagner