BBC Proms reviews

Prom 51: Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Dausgaard @ Royal Albert Hall, London

23 August 2010

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

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

Nina Stemme may have been the big draw, but Schumann was the real star in this lively Prom, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard.

Dausgaard conducted luminous Sibelius, Ligeti and Langgaard with the Swedish National Orchestra in Prom 35. With the smaller Swedish Chamber Orchestra he can get even lighter, brighter textures which suit Schumann perfectly. Schumann flies, with Dausgaard, bringing out the true adventure in his music.

Schumann’s Symphony in G minor “Zwickau” isn’t complete, so formal gravitas obscures its character. Dausgaard evokes Schumann’s youthful verve, the open textures suggesting what might have been.

Schumann’s Symphony no 2 in C major didn’t follow straight on, but the connections were clear. Dausgaard goes for a period-informed playing. Natural horns, for example, evoking Schumann’s time when hunting horns and posthorns were part of the soundscape. This isn’t a period orchestra per se, but its intimate scale reflects the way music would have been heard in Romantic times.

By connecting Schumann’s symphonies to his songs and chamber music, Dausgaard shows how lyrical they are. A chorale underpins the Second, inspired by Bach and Beethoven, so in a way, this is a Mahlerian song symphony. Bach himself was “new” music in Schumann’s time, revived and performed again by Mendelssohn, Schumann’s hero.

Yet there’s something subversive about the Second. An early critic wrote that there was “much that is peculiar and capricious…which one will not know whether to question or be angry”. Thus the contrast between the sublime slow passages and the quirky scherzo sections. Throughout his life Schumann was fascinated by cryptic codes. Here he’s alluding to Beethoven, who also had a crisis of the soul, and to Clara, whose love helped him stave off madness for a while.

Dausgaard’s clarity highlights the shifting tones and moods, rather than homogenising them in Late Romantic lushness, and he and his orchestra show how beautiful the natural colours in this symphony are, without excess. In Prom 15, Oliver Knussen conducted Schumann’s Third Symphony with similar personality, which was quite a shock to those used to Schumann smoothed out and neat.

Nina Stemme’s rendition of Berlioz’s Nuits d’t was a disappointment. She was majestic, but these songs need more agility and brightness. Her diction wasn’t sharp and her delivery was occluded, particularly in contrast to the litheness in the orchestra.

Albert Schnelzer’s A Freak in Burbank was an amusing bagatelle. It’s supposed to reference Haydn’s Toy Symphony and the films of Tim Burton. I quite liked the Tom and Jerry scatterings, but it contained more charm than substance.

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More on Thomas Dausgaard
Prom 40: BBC SSO / Dausgaard @ Royal Albert Hall, London
Prom 51: Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Dausgaard @ Royal Albert Hall, London