ENDNOTES, August 2021
In this edition: Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony; Froberger’s Suites for Harpsichord; The King’s Alchemist, by Sally Beamish; Professor John Kersey defends the music of the West, reviewed by Stuart Millson
Where is the Bruckner of my youth? The 1980s saw a proliferation of Bruckner performances in London: a visionary Bernard Haitink in the Ninth with the Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Proms; Gunter Wand at the Royal Festival Hall and the Proms in the Fifth and Eighth; Giulini – again with No. 8 – and von Matacic and Sinopoli, all with the Philharmonia, in the Third. All different interpretations, even tempi, but common to all was a definite, “dark brown”, Teutonic sound: a heaviness – even a thickness of sound – ending in a ritual ascent to greatness.
Listening to a recent recording of Bruckner’s rarely-played Symphony No. 6, one is struck by how much the approach to this Austro-German composer has changed – and how clearly the tone of orchestras has altered. The new Bruckner 6 from the BBC Philharmonic and their inspiring Spanish conductor, Juanjo Mena, gives us a lighter touch to the autumnal intensity of this 1879-81 symphony. The composer was often revising and reworking material over several years. Instead of the usual heavy tread across the Brucknerian alps, the turf is suddenly springy – the symphony almost sounding as though in the hands of a smaller, softer orchestra.
The BBC Philharmonic offers Bruckner enthusiasts some fine playing, cleanly and clearly captured by the Chandos sound-engineers – with soft, silvery strings, and often understatement. They are certainly very gentle and respectful in the slow movement: Bruckner can always be relied upon to create a poignant, reverential brooding, with his long, arching adagio sequences. His scherzo movements have a great deal of agitation, a sinister feeling always haunting the forward momentum – giving, for this reviewer, a thrilling soundscape that is even more compelling (dare I say) than Beethoven’s symphonies. The final movement sees Bruckner stating and restating some noble themes, before finally drawing his story to a close with an almost unruly energy – and one can imagine, as soon as the recording studio’s green light flashes on, the players trying to catch their breath again. An enriching account of a Bruckner work, which seems to show a change in performance sound and technique for this late-romantic master.
Back to the 17th-century now and the world of the harpsichord: Volume 2 of the athene/Divine Art label’s astonishing quest to record the seemingly endless output of Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-67) – a sort of J.S. Bach before his time. Froberger held a position as organist at the Viennese Royal court and enjoyed something of an international career – unusual for those times – visiting the great cultural centres of Italy and even making an appearance on our own fair shore. Gilbert Rowland is the master of the keyboard on the new CD. Certainly, his playing of Froberger’s multitude of Gigues and Sarabandes in no fewer than twelve suites is a testament to a true and dedicated musician, who clearly loves the clever, ingenious and melodious stream of this 17th-century composer’s engaging and attractive works. The soloist also provides us with the detailed sleeve notes – an illuminating approach, which mirrors the idea of a performer in a concert hall giving us a special introduction to each item. Whether in “French overture style”, or “foreshadowing Handel” – or reaching the “stately, bright-sounding Allemande” in the collection’s final suite in G major, Froberger’s music – in this splendid rendition by Gilbert Rowland – reveals huge variety and baroque beauty.
For our final CD, we come to a collection of British string trios – an album entitled, The King’s Alchemist – the intriguing name which Sally Beamish (b. 1956) gave to her four-movement, ten-minute-long contribution to the CD*, concerning the court of King James lV of Scotland and the place within it of one, John Damian – an adviser and alchemist, who even tried to fly from the battlements of Stirling Castle. Like Hugh Wood’s reimagining of the return of Ulysses – Ithaka, Op. 61 (the other contemporary piece in the programme) – Beamish’s chamber work has a subtle, spine-tingling magic which evokes an imagined ancient world and its bizarre inhabitants, with the tonality which you might associate with Benjamin Britten. The Eblana String Trio gives an involving, committed performance of these unusual atmospheric, history-inspired pieces – along with a more “familiar”, pastoral British repertoire of Gerald Finzi, Prelude and Fugue for String Trio, Op. 24 and E.J. Moeran’s String Trio in G major.
Our musical world has been reshaped by the Covid crisis – but we also face challenges from those who wish to destroy high-art, those “cultural commentators” who seek to dismantle the intrinsic European cultural reference points of the classical genre. A musician and academician who holds firm against today’s post-modernist onslaught is Professor John Kersey, a pianist who has studied and recorded Beethoven’s unfinished Sonata of 1794, and has also reinstated obscure but worthy late-romantic composers, such as Adolf Jensen. Professor Kersey’s search for the essence of the music means that we have unfussy, clearly-framed interpretations – and (like Gilbert Rowland) a performer who is more than happy to write about, discuss and present music – and the cause of culture. For further details of Professor Kersey’s work, visit his website: https://johnkersey.org/music/
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
CD details: Bruckner, Symphony No. 6/BBC Philharmonic/Mena, CHAN 20221; Froberger, Suites for Harpsichord, Gilbert Rowland, Athene label (Divine Art), ath 23209; The King’s Alchemist – world-premiere of Sally Beamish’s piece for string trio*, Willowhayne Records, WHR067
Editorial note; in this performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, the coda to the second movement (adagio) is sublime