MUSIC / Heartfelt prayers, drab fairy-tales: LP / Welser-Most - Royal Festival Hall
Thursday 04 February 1993
Such floridity dominates in the two earlier church pieces, Totus in corde langueo ('My heart is entirely desolate') and Auguste iam coelestium ('Revered Lord, now receive'), both distinctly Viennese sweetmeats. Franz Welser-Most pointed the accents and shaped the phrases carefully, keeping the music on the move - a little too resolutely perhaps for his soloists, Lynne Dawson and Kurt Azesberger.
Balance was better and flow more supple in Schubert's G major Mass. Gradually Welser-Most relaxed, the expression thawed, the phrases breathed more naturally, and in the concluding Agnus Dei there was a genuinely productive tension between purposeful thinking and enjoyment of the moment's inspiration: the opening string phrases were warmer, more spontaneous-sounding than anything else in the programme, a reminder - for those with ears to hear it - of what Welser-Most can do. The LPO Choir's contribution could have been more colourful, and they could have made a lot more of the sound of the text, but there was feeling and shapeliness - again particularly in the Agnus Dei.
Having heard Welser-Most concentrating so hard on instrumental details in the short liturgical pieces, it would have been fascinating to hear how he approached one of the purely orchestral works - the relatively small-scale but challenging Sixth Symphony, for instance (no need to go to the Great C major just yet). Instead, there was a complete change of scene and mood: the complete Firebird ballet, in its original, lavish scoring. The older Stravinsky found the orchestration 'wastefully large', and he went to some pains to conceal his early Scriabin-esque markings: 'passionato', 'timidamente', and my favourite, 'Sostenuto mystico'.
During one or two recent performances (Simon Rattle's, for example) one has half-expected the ghost of old Stravinsky to rise, Petrushka-like, from behind the orchestra, shaking his fist - imagine anyone taking his youthful indiscretions so seriously. Welser-Most's performance, however, was a relatively sober affair.
This was well-controlled, with again plenty of clean pointing and purposeful long-term thinking. String ensemble in the tearing semi-quavers of Kashchei's Dance wasn't perfect, but on the whole this was spruce, well-driven playing, strongly thrown into relief by the quiet dissolving sounds of Kashchei's dying moments.
In terms of atmosphere, or that fairy-tale poignancy and sensuality that conductors like Rattle have found here, it's unlikely that Stravinsky's slumbers were disturbed too deeply. Welser-Most may have argued well for Firebird as a 'choreographic symphony' - to borrow a term from Ravel - and, in the offstage alarms as Prince Ivan breaks into Kashchei's enchanted prison, the pulse quickened rather than merely accelerated. But as a synopsis of a dream-like rescue drama this was ultimately just too straightforward and matter-of-fact - the kind of performance that leaves one, alas, with no illusions.
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