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Ionarts-at-Large: Nagano, Manoury, Schumann

Three pillars of sound – powerful but all less so than one expects and receding where the ears expect the thundering climax: That is the opening statement of Philippe Manoury’s “Abgrund – pour grand orchestre” which was given its world premiere in the Third Akademiekonzert of the Bavarian State Orchestra under Kent Nagano on Monday, November 26th.

This attitude of ‘not-quite-full-out’ and taken-back peaks lends a restful, relaxed feeling to the work – commissioned by Kent Nagano’s Bavarian State Opera and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal – that stands rather in contrast to the bustle of notes and the excessive percussion batteries employed by the Tulle (France) born Manoury who teaches composition at the University of California, San Diego.

Perhaps because of the ‘pillars’ in “Abgrund”, I thought more of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony during the performance than I did of any recent modern work – so many of which also feature absurd arrays of percussion. But if on the surface Manoury is similarily obsessed with rhythm- and noise-makers like high maracas, cow bells, wood blocks, claves, low rattles, gongs, xylophones, a “Mahler-box”[i], and 18 other percussion instruments (not counting the piano), he mercifully knows how to use them in ways far more discriminately than his contemporaries beholden to one bongo-frenzy after another. He deserves laude for that, alone.

“Abgrund” is a work that will neither disturb nor annoy… it is a pleasant and perhaps harmless string of dissonant semi-climaxes, little jolts, and resting phases. It has an invigorating effect, is easy to concentrate on, and altogether a work I’d not mind hearing on many more occasions. (Admittedly two little ladies next to me felt quite differently: One was loudly wondering – mid piece – when it would be over, finally. The other thought that a subsequent Schumann Symphony was not worth the Manoury trial.)

I cannot quite tell why my ears respond(ed) so instinctively positive to “Abgrund”, a fact that quite annoys me. Perhaps Philippe Manoury hit the right mix between shallow and deep, melodic and dissonant, placating and strident, stasis and progress, simplicity and complexity. The steady run-up—stop—tighten—burst—relax scheme may not be novel at all, but it paid dividends here. Indeed so well that so that the work might not have needed its full 20+ minutes to make the intended impact. As it was, the rather quiet and calm, Hammerblow-interrupted, long tail of the frenzy and busy mid-section reminded again of Mahler. This time of the description of Mahler’s symphonies as bearing a resemblance to the guest who already stands in the door, parting, but won’t quite leave, always finding another point of discussion.

Before the ladies had to sit through the IRCAM-trained Manoury's work, they were mollified with a first dose of Robert Schumann – his Bach-inspired Konzertstück for Four Horns. Under Kent Nagano, the orchestra turned in a performance that was concise and of swift freshness. The winds struggled to be heard, the orchestra’s tone was often close to shrill and rarely very nice, but as an ensemble it was as agile as imaginable. The result was a strangely modern sound (especially given that Schumann rarely sounds modern, much less ‘sleek’, to begin with) – but not unpleasantly so. The four horn players (Johannes Dengler, Franz Draxinger, Rainer Schmitz, Maximilian Hochwimmer) had individual moments of glory but without exciting (or being especially accurate) as a group.

Schumann’s Fourth Symphony is neither his fourth nor a late work – except that Schumann revised his 1841 (and technically therefore his second symphony) work in 1852. When this somewhat unusual work premiered, it was not so much received badly as it was ignored: The same concert had featured the mega-event of Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt appearing on stage together.

Hearing it in its original form – which is largely a matter of stripping it of Schumann’s own re-orchestration – was very worthwhile. Good, too, that it was noted as the ‘original version’, lest I have – confused, perhaps – attributed the leanness, the lighter, unmannered, and sunnier quality all to Kent Nagano’s (hitherto unknown of) revealingly brilliant conducting.

The inner luster and the gloom, doom, and heft of the version generally known is gone – and without harm to the four movements-in-one symphony… where three unfulfilled parts lead attacca (without break or pause) into the next and then into the finale which ties the loose ends together and provides the resolution for everything that came before. Nagano, whose Beethoven in the first of the ‘Academy Concerts’ was something short of joyless butchery, showed mechanical spots here, too, but in all that is light and legato, soft and slow, he shows all those abilities that one would swear he’d be lacking given the loveless result of some of the loud and fast passages. The lightness of this version of the Symphony met Nagano’s accuracy for a very fine result, seemingly appeasing even my critical ladies in the audience.

Picture © Wilfried Hösl

[i] The ‘Hammerblow-instrument’ built for and used in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.

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