Prom 48: Gürzenich Orchestra / Stenz / Kirchschlager - Royal Albert Hall, 22 August 2008
Mahler Symphony No.5
Stockhausen Punkte (1952/1962/1993)
Schubert Ständchen, D921 orch. David Matthews, Bei dir allein, D866/2 orch. Manfred Trojahn, Nacht und Träume, D827 orch. Colin Matthews, Das Lied im Grünen, D917 orch. Detlev Glanert
Beethoven Overture 'Leonore' No.3
This was perhaps the oddest-looking but most fascinating programme at this year's Proms.
Mahler's Fifth Symphony was premiered by Cologne's Gürzenich Orchestra in 1904, and the first idea for tonight's Prom was to reproduce that programme. Then new orchestrations were commissioned for the Schubert songs, performed at the 1904 concert with piano accompaniment. Conductor Markus Stenz wanted to add something by Cologne-born Stockhausen, as 22 August would have been the exact date of his 80th birthday. So we ended up with a two-interval concert, the old programme sandwiched with Stockhausen.
The big symphony came first, 70-ish minutes of non-stop music, in a reversal of the modern day practice which normally places it at the end. Or was it? We nowadays often programme the new stuff at the start of the night - and that's just what they did in 1904, before soothing the duly baffled Cologne audience with some more familiar Schubert and Beethoven. If nothing else, tonight's programming highlighted that even the most venerable of chestnuts were new once.
As once was Stockhausen's Punkte - but that was nearly sixty years ago. Unremarkably, the ageing Mahler fans who form a large part of the Arena audience came out with the usual lame jokes and mutterings. But to their credit, the vast majority returned from the bar after the interval for the Stockhausen. A few passive-aggressive old bats chose to demonstrate their superior musical tastes by ostentatiously rustling their boiled sweets and Sudoku 'books' throughout, but the vast majority stood there silently and perhaps attentively, prepared at least to give the music a chance.
I doubt if many were converted - Punkte is one of the early works where musical effect is subsumed to the underlying idea, and the idea sustains more like 27 seconds of music than the 27 minutes it extends over. Although Stockhausen went back later and revised the work, it remains, despite a supple and accurate performance by the Gürzenich, largely dry and unrewarding. "It wasn't flowing" complained a nearby prommer, who unwittingly grasped the Punkt of it all "just a load of different noises with gaps in between".
Stockhausen's legacy is I think better served by the outright sonic manipulation of later works. But Punkte I guess slotted better into this programme, because it deploys relatively conventional orchestral forces. The unconventional but typically thoughtful layout (violins to the right, a harp on each side of the conductor) provided the main foretaste of the spatial soundgames Stockhausen was later to play.
But all four of the newly-commissioned orchestrations for this evening were dull and formulaic. I've heard more interesting arrangements on ye olde scratchy lieder 78s (and would have been happy to hear these revived - what's the point of revisiting if you're not going to rethink?)
A couple were worse than dull - Colin Matthews' stodgy brass band lullaby for Nacht und Träume entirely missed the point of its hidden death wish, and Detlev Glanert's leaden Das Lied im Grünen had none of the joys of spring.
Careless programme editing didn't help - the text for the Rellstab Ständchen D957 was printed instead of the required (identical in name only) Grillparzer Ständchen D920. (Correct text and original music is here for anyone interested, translation is here, and here's an idea for the editor's Xmas list.)
Angelika Kirchschlager, dressed as everyone's favourite Quality Street, nuts and gooey caramel in a purple wrapper, did her effortful best to project over some unsympathetically dense orchestration. The upper end of her range sparkled. The lower notes, her weak point anyway, often just disappeared. But at least she brought a charm that the grimly serious earlier part of the evening had lacked.
Just when I was thinking the Gürzenich was a fine professional orchestra but nothing more, they surprised by flashing their opera house credentials with a weighty and truly stirring Leonore No.3 Overture to finish, and capped even that with their encore, a nice bit of Parsifal. We were by now more than three hours from the start, but I could happily have stayed for hours more. Why is it only at the Proms, and then only rarely, that we get orchestral concerts of any substantial length?