How Schumann responds to vigour and virtuosity

Proms 32-34 | Royal Albert Hall, London/ Radio 3
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The word must have got around, because an evening of Schumann from a regional German orchestra isn't your usual crowd-puller. Sure enough, Tuesday was one of the season's peaks. Only full time since 1987, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen has acquired the rising Daniel Harding as music director, and plays with vigour and unselfconscious virtuosity. Why do our orchestras use only half the physical effort? Our climate?

The word must have got around, because an evening of Schumann from a regional German orchestra isn't your usual crowd-puller. Sure enough, Tuesday was one of the season's peaks. Only full time since 1987, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen has acquired the rising Daniel Harding as music director, and plays with vigour and unselfconscious virtuosity. Why do our orchestras use only half the physical effort? Our climate?

The first essential with Schumann is to hear what's going on. The DKP with minimal strings has an advantage, and care with wind balance did most of the rest. Then came rhythmic life. For the Third Symphony, Harding took speeds that gave an energised lift - broad at the start, quick in the finale - and the proto-Mahlerian character pieces in between had a contrasting lightness of touch. The real subtlety came with fine judgement of constant small, telling ebbs and flows of tension.

Schumann's Violin Concerto, rarely played and routinely dismissed, would have opened willing ears. Christian Tetzlaff has the commitment and imagination to make the solo's intricacies tell, but the orchestral treatment was crucial. Schumann often eschews his usual sinewy basslines for block chords and long-held notes. Consider it dull, and dull it will sound. Call it the missing link between Schubert's Unfinished and Bruckner, and it's drama.

Still more surprising was the A Minor Concerto by Bach: fast and responsive, sophisticated yet true, playful and earnest. This was Bach through a post-Glenn Gould mind-set. Period strings can't physically do it, especially the easy vivacity of the finale. We are rediscovering why instruments had to develop.

Late evening brought less consistent results. Oliver Knussen can be a perverse programmer. Sometimes his enthusiasms carry you - such as early Copland ballets - and sometimes they just seem cranky. His Copland centenary tribute conducting the London Sinfonietta was a mix of the two, presumably meant to climax with the Short Symphony but actually running downhill from the spicy Music for the Theatre (like Bernstein anticipated) via the drier, eventually exhilarating Clarinet Concerto (Michael Collins suitably flamboyant) to a real period piece from 1960 by Lukas Foss. Time Cycle, brightly sung by Rosemary Hardy, is spiky, disjointed, mostly atonal and almost unlistenable now, apart from a wild German setting of Kafka which works as Twenties pastiche. And the Short Symphony? Rhythmically alert despite melodic poverty - but not quite Roussel.

Another anniversary on Wednesday, the 25th of Shostakovich's death, brought blockbusters from the National Orchestra of Wales and David Atherton. Shostakovich's late set of Michelangelo songs demand patience with their impenetrable gloom and occasional bluntness until all is revealed at the end with the quiet, scintillating release of "Immortality". Sergei Leiferkus had the tonal weight and a storyteller's timing. The impact fed into the Eighth Symphony in which the unexpected final lightening seemed to parallel the songs. Atherton's strengths were in the big moments and the overall vision, and the piccolos and trumpets shone.

Radio 3 will rebroadcast Prom 32 (Schumann) and 34 (Shostakovich) at 2pm today and on Tuesday respectively

Comments