BBC Proms reviews

Prom 48: Gürzenich Orchestra/Stenz @ Royal Albert Hall, London

22 August 2008

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

For Prom 48, Markus Stenz conducted a bizarre and thrilling programme which consisted of Mahler’s 5th Symphony, Stockhausen’s Punkte, various songs by Schubert and Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No.3. This odd collection was apparently the running order of the premiere of Mahler’s 5th in 1904. Minus the Stockhausen, of course.

Unless something goes horribly wrong I’ll always enjoy a performance of almost any Mahler Symphony. Even if the conductor doesn’t have a shocking or bold conception of the piece or if the orchestra aren’t world leaders there will be new details brought to the surface, almost by accident.

There was nothing accidental about this performance. Stenz pushed and pulled tempos around but always in fresh and purposeful ways, making the orchestra reflect the light of the Symphony from many angles. The string section were totally flexible, with a huge palette of voices, deftly crossing from the arch and coaxing to the rugged and shoving. Too much detail to report here and admittedly there were some imperfections, but I was locked in from the get-go.

Punkte isn’t Stockhausen’s shining hour. Like Webern’s early Im Sommerwind it’s good of its kind, but not so good of the kind he would go on to write. It was first written in 1952 and was revised three times since then (the latest revision was in 1993) which hints that he was never satisfied with it. The opening is like an aural illustration of somebody flicking through a novel and reading out a few unrelated sentences. A ripple of notes, and then a silence. Another ripple of notes, and then another silence. The interest in this procedure obviously depends on the quality of the ripples.

By most composers’ standards this would be great stuff, but the individual ideas are nowhere near as gripping as in his orchestral masterpiece Gruppen. They even sound a little terrestrial (a description which would probably have deeply annoyed the composer). Always great to hear some Stockhausen, though. And funny that Stenz made the score take a bow.

Mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager then took on four Schubert songs in new orchestrations by David Matthews, Manfred Trojahn, Colin Matthews and Detlev Glanert. None of the arrangements touched the madcap genius of Hans Zender’s orchestral interpretation of Winterreise, but they were beautiful in their simplicity and modesty. Kirchschlager’s voice was especially ravishing in Colin Matthews’ version of Nacht und Träume.

The last item was Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3. It was played with agility and brilliance but another four Schubert songs would have been preferable.

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Prom 48: Gürzenich Orchestra/Stenz @ Royal Albert Hall, London