Prom: Gürzenich Orchestra, Mahler 5 etc.

Angelika Kirchschlager

Angelika Kirchschlager

After the previous night’s Prom – when Jiři Bělohlávek drew a lovely light, fluffy sound from the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Dvořák’s bouncy and witty Slavonic Dances, and Janáček’s beautiful but maddeningly unfocused little-known early opera Osud – what a contrast yesterday to hear the rich glowing sound of the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne under Markus Stenz.

Their weird back-to-front programme – Mahler 5, some Schubert songs, Beethoven’s Overture Leonore No. 3 – turned out to be a re-creation of the first performance of the Mahler in 1904 (I hadn’t realised it had been written for this orchestra).  Plus – to bring us up to date – a chunk of Stockhausen, which succeeded in driving a lot of the audience away after the Mahler (rumour has it that it was scheduled to be a separate late-night Prom, but perhaps the Powers That Be had thought no one at all would have turned up).  As it was, the Albert Hall was respectably full but not bursting.

From the first tutti, the Mahler had an authentically ‘European’ sound:  big, colourful and full of character, supported on the cushion of those gorgeous strings – especially a phalanx of eight double basses across the back of the platform, where they became the beating heart of the orchestra, always supporting, always making their presence felt even in the softest pianissimo (and all bowing ‘underhand’ in Continental fashion).

Varieties of orchestral layout are a continuing fasciation;  the oddity of this one was that the brass were ‘back to front’, with the trumpets on the outside and the trombones and tuba nearest the middle.  This had the bonus of placing the tuba next to contrabassoon and double basses – good idea.  If I am not mistaken, the second violins sat opposite the firsts in the Mahler, but the violas went there for the Beethoven.  (The Stockhausen had a weirdly random layout, not explained in the programme).

‘A symphony must be like the world – it should embrace everything’, said Gustav Mahler:  it could be claimed that Mahler’s Fifth is the greatest of his symphonies, and one of the greatest of all symphonies (and I’m not just saying that because of its terrific contrabassoon part!).  The Gürzenich Orchestra gave it all they’d got, which was indeed plenty, although both the first trumpet (in his opening fanfare) and the first horn (in his solos in the huge Scherzo) were not entirely accident-free – though they improved once they had got over their opening wobbles.  Yet somehow, despite tremendously characterised and colourful wind playing, the sound remained slightly one-dimensional and the performance didn’t ever quite take off.  When Markus Stenz reached the final bombastic peroration, it didn’t seem to have earned its place in the scheme of things.  And heaven knows what he thought he was beating at the beginning of the (admirably unsentimental) Adagietto.

Stockhausen’s Punkte was a kind of smudged pointillist canvas, or rather a much-reworked palimpsest; whatever you think of Stockhausen, he had a fantastically original imagination and an extraordinary ear for beautiful and strange sounds.  I found this piece more to my taste than Jonathan Harvey’s Speakings (see my previous post), perhaps because it was ‘about’ the different things that can be done with the actual sounds orchestral musicians can make.  At 27 minutes, perhaps it outstayed its welcome:  with no obvious form, it’s hard to know what’s coming next, or when, or indeed why, it will finish (but my brother detected more formal shape in it than I had.  I must hear it again).  It occurred to me that the immense range of colour and dynamics was rather what was lacking in the Mahler. 

The trouble with named arrangers is that they are always making a point – namely ‘Hear how clever I am’… The four chaps charged with providing orchestrations of Schubert songs all fell in to this trap.  Only Detlev Glanert tried to keep to a Schubertian orchestral palette, and his was the lightest and most successful of the four.  Colin Matthews went for broke, turning Nacht und Träume into an extra Strauss ‘Last Song’, complete with trombones and tuba (muted!), contrabassoon, bass clarinet and heaven knows what else.  Actually it sounded lovely.  About the other two, the less said the better.  David Matthews had arranged a ‘Serenade’ which was not the familiar one the programme editors had assumed it was, but a different, lovely one with a female chorus.  His supposedly ‘Wagnerian’ added playout was an embarrassment, sounding merely incompetent.

Meanwhile, Angelika Kirchschlager (in a stunning purple frock) twinkled, smiled, danced, shimmied and crooned her way charmingly through the four songs, oblivious of the rubbish going on behind her.

The Beethoven overture, Leonore No. 3, once again supplied a range of colour and hushed tones that the Mahler could well have done with, as well as a magnificent stentorian offstage trumpet.  The encore, from Wagner’s Parsifal, had an immense depth and richness of tone which showed the orchestra off to its best advantage.

Because of the monster-concert layout (with two intervals), the Prom had started at 7 pm, not 7.30 – a fact I hadn’t noticed until I was halfway through cooking my dinner at 5.15 and had to dash for a train instead.  So at least I had a nice late supper to look forward to!  Tonight’s (the National Youth Orchestra) is a 6.30 start, so I had better get moving…

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One Comment on “Prom: Gürzenich Orchestra, Mahler 5 etc.”

  1. jonathanburton Says:

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    Please note that all opinons expressed by me on this site are mine and nobody else’s….


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