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SCHOENBERG Five Pieces for Orchestra
STRAUSS Four Last Songs

SIBELIUS Scene with Cranes
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 4

BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jukka Pekka Saraste
Christine Brewer - Soprano

Barbican, 1 November

MAHLER 2nd Symphony (pre-concert lecture) RFH 4 November
Philharmonia/Kaplan etc

A mixed programme with no particular logic, but it filled The Barbican; had most people booked to hear Karita Mattila, who was unwell?

Most welcome was a chance to hear the five Schoenberg pieces, premiered in London by Henry Wood, to general consternation, in 1912, and given now with assurance and verve under the guidance of the BBCSO's Principal Guest Conductor, Jukka Pekka Saraste. They are pungent and concentrated; the central 'Chord-colours' a still centre which explores sound and timbre in a way that anticipates many experiments in the future. Ninety years on, they are fresh and accessible, but the tunes not yet so whistleable as Schoenberg had hoped his music would become. Only a quarter hour long, a repeat performance after the interval would have made this a better concert - it was all over by 9.20. *

Since they remain rarities in concert programmes it was a pity that they were played first, to get the token difficult modern stuff - early Schoenberg here substituting for anything 'contemporary' - over and done with, so that the audience could settle down comfortably with Strauss.

The group of songs was posthumously published with the title which has ensured their too frequent performance from a huge oeuvre of orchestral song. Christine Brewer rode over the orchestra with an effortless flow of generous tone, allowing Saraste to support her with sumptuous instrumental tone and no need to worry about his BBC players overpowering the solo voice.

I found the little Sibelius Scene with Cranes, for strings and two clarinets repeating the two-note birds call, not really as worth ressurecting as the long programme note led us to expect. (Valse Triste, from the same Kuolema incidental music, is a different matter, and well warrants its enduring popularity.) I missed the death-tinged intensity we were invited to experience. Scene with Cranes might better serve as a sweet, calming Beecham 'lollipop' encore in the right concert; not this one.

Finally the austere, powerful Sibelius No 4 - here was real intensity and incipient tragedy, shaped ideally by the composer's compatriot, Jukka Pekka Saraste, who has recorded the whole cycle successfully, in what is a highly cometitive field. It is goal-oriented music, its unforeseeable logic holding attention bar to bar, the dissolutions which end the movements unpredictable; the complexities expounded in a useful note by the late Robert Simpson. It remains as gripping as when first encountered fifty and more years ago, and will remain so as long as Beethoven's symphonies.

Sibelius 4 remained in my mind during the following days, during which I found myself out of sympathy with the full grandiose panoply of Mahler 2, which (unexpectedly) had a hollow ring for me in the Philharmonia's performance at RFH under the one-work only, part-time conductor Gilbert Kaplan. Perhaps the dry, hard acoustic as heard from row F of the balcony was critical; it was certainly not so moving as at the ad-hoc and listener friendly temporary auditorium at Klagenfurt in the summer.

There were no press tickets for MusicalPointers, so I will limit myself to mentioning the peculiar, free pre-concert talk by Kaplan, a breathless hour-long race through the whole of Mahler's life and each of his symphonies, with well known anecdotes, including Mahler's conversations, one with Freud and the other with Sibelius, in which the two composers agreed to disagree about The Symphony!

Surely this general-purpose lecture was inappropriate for a British audience which knows its Mahler well? For what we wanted to know in greater depth, see the interviews with Marc Bridle (Seen&Heard) and Anna Kythreotis (TheIndependent).

* It has been a pleasure to re-hear the Schoenberg pieces several times on line - the concert was chosen as RADIO 3 ONLINE CONCERT OF THE WEEK

© Peter Grahame Woolf