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Ionarts-at-Large: BRSO Season Opening Concerts

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s courtship (perhaps already engagement period) of the wonderfully, sharply musical Andris Nelsons, currently Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, continues: In 2012/13 by handing him the season opener and letting him play with the BR’s unequaled chorus in a very smart program of Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, and—treasure of treasures—Joseph Haydn.

Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, Strauss’ Metamorphosen for string orchestra, and Haydn’s Missa in angustiis, better known as the Nelson Mass, are three different takes on war. The uplifting Haydn mass reminds us to be grateful, after a first half that reminded us to be mindful, vigilant, humble, and never forget.

In front of a German audience, more so than anywhere else, A Survivor from Warsaw for chorus, speaker, and orchestra, sounds like an accusation and a warning that has not been tempered by history—if a speck of time like 60, 70 years could at all be considered history. The rightly hesitant applause afterwards was therefore telling and gratifying, as was Gerald Finley’s recitation of the spoken part and the chorus’ rousing, as it were: dead-on delivery.

available at Amazon
A.Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw,
C.Abbado / WPh /

available at Amazon
R.Strauss, Metamorphosen, D&T,
H.v.K. / BPh

available at Amazon
J.Haydn, Nelson Mass, Mass in Times of War,
L.Bernstein / NYPh /
J.Blegen, G.Killebrew, K.Riegel, S.Estes

In direct contrast with the raised finger of Schoenberg’s Survivor, Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen is exposed as an incredibly narcissistic, lachrymose work. Strauss’ take on all the tragedy and misery of World War II… as it affects him. You can almost hear the petulant pout through the genuine distress with the general state of affairs, the self-pity over a background of anger and anguish.

In its version for string orchestra, Metamorphosen, as opposed to Septet, is a real test for an orchestra. The piece can develop its wistfully old-fashioned capacity to move very deeply only if played with absolute perfection and only on top of that enough feeling, but not sappiness. Twenty-three players (9-6-5-3) are too many to coordinate as would be possible in a Septet, and too few to give it that benevolent sheen that a slight haze of inaccuracy can endow very large string sections with. That made the performance at hand particularly noteworthy, because Nelsons and his players achieved magnificence by way of excellence, refinement, and—presumably—plenty rehearsal time. Its sumptuous gorgeousness, thankfully not too indulgent, could have lasted forever, something the work very nearly does, anyway…

Haydn’s Nelson Mass was inaccurately nicknamed that for its alleged, audible connection with the Admiral’s victory over the Napoleonic Fleet in the 1798 Battle of Aboukir Bay… (news of the victory didn’t reach Vienna until well after its composition). But the mass earned itself that nickname anyway, when it was performed in front of the war hero at Palais Esterházy in Vienna, two years later. The allegedly audible war-connection stemmed then from the dark, trumpet and timpani dominated orchestral sound that was the result of a rather more domestic cause: Haydn’s employer had dismissed the woodwinds from the orchestra, so Haydn had none to play with and made the most of brass and percussion instead. Woodwinds were later added to the score again, and it was this edition, even if it undermines the masses’ original character, that was performed here.

Radiant in every way, soprano Julia Kleiter (this year’s Salzburg Pamina) produced her part in the Mass with an extra burst of energy. Katija Dragojevic sang with a good deal of glamour and glitter and a very fine mezzo with a high-sounding timbre. The ambiguously British tenor and baritone duo Mark Padmore (English) and Gerald Finley (Commonwealth-Canadian) was sonorous and solid; in Finley’s case noble, with traces of effort. Unfortunately the lower voice’s part really lies in bass-territory which Finely’s register doesn’t quite extend to.

Nelsons led the Haydn with swerve and precision and all the oomph it needs, desires, and deserves. Even if it was demanded by dramatic necessity, this most gratifying concert showed that Haydn at the end of a concert makes for the obvious, undisputable musical highlight he ought to be every time he is performed.

The posters that announce the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s concerts—much like their season program—are utterly unreadable, thanks to a narcissistic designer who got carried away playing with an unwieldy font and a too-clever-by-half layout. Bureau Mirko Borsche (check out their ‘ironic’ website and you might understand) obviously follows the design-principle of “form follows whim, f*ck function”.

Once I managed to decipher the latest poster, I was quite happy though. Britten (“B-Rit-Ten”) visually dominated the bill, ahead of Mozart and Schumann. Rightly so in every way: Britten deserves being considered the highlight for the concert’s inclusion of his Four Sea Interludes, especially in continental Europe / Germany where Britten is still scarcely acknowledged by the public as a composer of any import. It also happened so that under the baton of substituting Pablo Heras-Casado (last heard with the BRSO in February), these Four Interludes—or more specifically the first two of them—were in fact the highlight of the concert, easily outshining the Mozart Sinfonia concertante for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra and Schumann’s Fourth Symphony.

Heras-Casado had to step in, because Yannick Nézet-Séguin had once again bungled his schedule and cancelled on short notice for health related reasons. It would be a shame if he got to be known more for over-scheduling and taking on more work than he or his body can handle, than for his scintillating performances (Leipzig, Salzburg just being two recent-ish examples). Also a pity not to be able to compare two of the rightly most highly traded conductors of their generation—Andris Nelsons and Nézet-Séguin—side by side, within a week, with the same orchestra. Alas, it was not to be, and Heras-Casado is a fine conductor, better than exciting, not the next Dudamel (despite rivaling his hair), nor a flash in the pan, but a fine future music director, solid throughout, and reliable.

Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante rarely receives a pair of soloists in concert—never mind top notch ones like Christian Tetzlaff and Antoine Tamestit. Usually it gets the orchestra’s first desks dumped on it… sometimes to dismal (Bavarian State Orchestra, 2008), sometimes to fine, always to conveniently economical results. It’s a tricky work, because like all Mozart, it cannot be taken lightly, even if it is slight, because if it is, it will turn awful and deadly boring beneath its indestructibly pretty surface.

The soloists—agile and taut Tetzlaff, blooming and elegant Tamestit, both playing along in the tutti-passages—were not the blemish-free, but not to blame for the results. Perhaps much of the blame ought to be—sacrilegiously—assigned to Mozart; in any case the result was just plain dull. The Allegro encore from the G-major Duo for Violin and Viola, though amiable, didn’t relieve the cruelty much.

Schumann’s Fourth Symphony (the only change to the program from the intended Third) was promising in that its opening was swift. The tempo was kept up throughout, which meant that even though not much was happening in this performance, the symphony was being pulled along nicely, with accurate and occasional even explosive playing. Pablo Heras-Casado led with Kapellmeisterish, solid, and inoffensive competence. In this case more would have been needed, though… half an hour after the concert you forgot you had ever gone.