There was something odd about the formation of the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra at the start of this Prom, as the two desks at the front of the strings were left vacant. If this mystery was solved as conductor Jonathan Nott entered with the Arditti Quartet who were to play a pivotal role in the first piece, the music it contained seemed every bit as strange as the original set-up.
Helmut Lachenmann’s Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied was written in 1979-80 but is only now enjoying its UK premiere. It is a totally radical, off-the-wall piece, but, while it certainly has a playful side, this should not blind us to its hidden depths or serious commentary. It begins with a single note played by the quartet leader bowing on the wrong side of the violin bridge, and overall includes bowing at the thin end of the fingerboard; frenetic, scratchy pizzicato, and breathily played ‘half-notes’ on the flute.
The title itself translates as ‘Dance Suite with National Anthem’ and was purposely designed to be ironic. Haydn included a Deutschlandlied in a string quartet (Op. 76 No. 3), but while he is possibly the last composer to spring to mind as the music strikes up, there are, in fact, interesting references to him and Bach as well as to popular and folk tunes.
In releasing instruments to produce sounds far outside the normal constraints and ‘rules’ placed upon them, Lachenmann was creating his own form of revolution by breaking the ‘laws’ of music, and it is intriguing just how far this idea is taken. Hearing a bow scrape so heavily across a string, in such contrast to what happens when the two normally make contact, makes the resulting grinding sound feel almost like anti-music. This is an exceptional and intriguing work, and it was a pleasure to applaud the 77-year old composer as he graced the stage at the end.
After the interval the orchestra delivered a stunning performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-2), layering the work’s brighter and darker elements to perfection. Following a blazing trumpet solo, the first movement got the balance between the two exactly right, the sound coming across as both sweeping and stark in nature. The violins were particularly appealing as they combined a reserved, almost timid, approach with a pleasing tone that saw lines played out with crystal clarity. The second movement started in suitably churning fashion, but the central slower episodes were beautiful and haunting by turn, while in the chorale in D major the brass proved especially strong.
There is still no consensus on what exactly ‘nicht zu schnell’ means regarding the tempo in the Scherzo, though Mahler reportedly lamented that future generations would play the movement too fast. The speed adopted by Nott seemed both reasonable and effective, but just as importantly the output demonstrated strong rhythmic obedience. In the following Adagietto the pace was, quite rightly, kept warm rather than funereal, while a thunderous conclusion capped a performance that at every turn carried an appropriate sense of both the monumental and uplifting.
Further information on BBC Proms concerts can be found at bbc.co.uk/proms.