Spooky Sounds Prom 23 Widmann Schumann Sibelius Nielsen

Prom 23, with John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, began with an extremely eclectic programme : Jörg Widmann’s Armonica, with Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor, followed by the Overture to Sibelius The Tempest and Carl Nielsen’s Symphony no 5.

The glass harmonica (seen at right being played by soloist Christa  Schönfeldinger) is an instrument consisting  of 20 to 54 blown crystal or quartz bowls  fitted concentrically onto a rotating rod controlled by a pedal reminiscent of a treadle sewing machine. Sound is created by the player rubbing their wetted fingers on the edges of these. It can be tuned, but its distinctive wailing drone is so strange that it can be used to create sounds that suggest forces beyond the control of nature.  Mozart heard it performed by a blind musician, Marianne Davies, who specialized in its use, being introduced to her by her opera-singer sister whilst he was rehearsing Idomeneo. He went on to create the short solo work  Adagio K356/617a from which Widmann took his inspiration.  Thus Widmann instructs the soloist to sing into the sound waves produced by rubbing the instrument, so the singing voice itself distorts, much in the way a voice sounds strange when you blow into a bowl.  Widmann amplifies the effect of glass harmonica and voice with an accordion with Teodoro Anzellotti, the accordionist of choice these days. Like the glass harmonica, the accordion transform invisible airwaves into sound: both instruments “breathing” and singing like strange alien beings. Indeed, the glass harmonica  was believed by many to induce insanity and even demonic possession.  Donizetti employed it in Lucia di Lammermoor, where its surreal drone would have added an extra frisson of danger to early performances, enhancing dramatic impact. The full impact may be lost on modern audiences used to horror movies and the ondes martenot, but the glass harmonicas still serve to suggest alien forces and the breakdown of tonality. Thus it’s not surprising that there are quite a few players around these days, and new repertoire for the instrument.

Widmann’s Armonica makes the most of the instrument’s ability to create long lines, wailing and probing space, buffeted by the wheeze of the accordion. Armonica is a well integrated piece you can enjoy as music regardless of instrumentation. It is more convincing than Michael Berkeley’s Violin Concerto, heard earlier this week. Berkeley used tabla and other exotic instruments for a genuine purpose, in memory of his late wife, but I suspect the piece was somewhat ambitious.

Clara Schumann, Brahms and Joseph Joachim thought that Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto WoO23 (1853) should be suppressed for 100 years after the composer’s death. .  Perhaps they were right, because its bizarre sonics and wailing timbre might have seemed disturbing at the time, especially given the fear of mental illness that prevailed before modern psychiatry.  Bizarrely, it was revived after Joachim’s grand nieces were supposedly contacted by Schumann’s ghost in a  seance in 1933.  In comparison the strangeness of the Violin Concerto might not be so mad after all. Certainly, nowadays we can better appreciate its quirky originality and mystical strangeness.   Thomas Zehetmair played it exquisitely, letting its legato flow with seductive – and dangerous –  langour.  It’s a remarkable work, a tantalizing insight as to where Schumann might have headed creatively had time, and health, been on his side.

More eclectic music followed. Sibelius’s The Tempest Op90 (1926) is, in its own way, every bit as singular as his Symphony no 7 and Tapiola.  It is music of such character that Eric Tawaststjerna has suggested that part of the reason Sibelius suppressed what might have been his Symphony no.8 was that his creative visions were raised so high that he couldn’t be satisfied with anything but ultimate perfection.  The Overture, which we heard here, sets the stage so to speak for a play based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Large orchestral forces, describing the driving winds of the storm at sea which throws Prospero and Caliban together – a storm of supernatural, cosmic forces, strings swirling with demonic violence, rolling percussion, wailing brass, undercut by shafts of brightness, suggesting magic and caprice.  As the “storm” clears, shimmering strings suggest swathes of diaphanous light, rising heavenwards, floating as if propelled by invisible winds.  But the “storm” returns, even more savagely, trumpets and brass ablaze, timpani thundering, strings screaming fury.  John Storgårds conducted the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra with such clean definition that the colours shone, intensifying the dramatic contrasts inherent in the music. The adaptation of the play can’t have lived up to its incidental music. For Storgårds, the BBC PO play better than they do for almost any other conductor, and this is his core repertoire. The only full recording of Sibelius The Tempest conducted by Osmo Vänskä,  doesn’t even come close.  Until Storgårds or someone of his calibre does the full Tempest, we won’t be hearing its full impact.

Storgårds is also a specialist in the works of Carl Nielsen, so his account of Nielsen’s Symphony no 5 Op 50 1922 was something to look forward to after a somewhat pallid performance in 2012 (Vänskä and a somewhat better one in 2014. (Søndergård).  The first movement begins in relative peace soon interrupted with drumbeats and a march, interspersed with fragile  flickering figures which suggest tension.  Although Denmark was neutral in the First World War, Nielsen, despite his sunny disposition, had no illusions about the way the war had changed things. This movement ends with a chill, which hangs over the relatively more expansive passages that follow.  The flickering figures stll haunt the piece, and the hollow beating of drums.  Trumpets call, from a distance, the drums ricochet like machine gun fire.   The strings soar upwards and silence descends again heralded by a solemn oboe, singing a plaintive lament.   For a moment, we hold a breath, before the orchestra explodes with a wild scherzo which introduces the second movement. Tense, jagged angles flailing across the strings: as if fields were being mowed with a giant scythe,  the crop not wheat nor corn.  So much for the notion of Nielsen as pastoralist.  Crashing timpani, whizzing figure speed past with demented fury.   A new theme emerges, like a grotesque dance, squat and crude, mocking the angular driving measures.   Yet again, diminuendos descend. For a moment,  a kind of chill calm prevails, but the strings rise upwards again,  but there is no resolution.  The pounding percussion and angular chords return and the pace once again becomes manic.  I thought about the famous photo of Nielsen knitting, the repetitive rhythm soothing his nerves and slowing his heart rate. Astonishingly good performance – Storgårds is a tonic for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. He raises the bar for them, and they respond.

Original Source: Spooky Sounds Prom 23 Widmann Schumann Sibelius Nielsen

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