Ask the average concertgoer how they would recognise Romantic music, and the chances are they’ll come up with a whole variety of things rather than one individual composer or one crucial characteristic. This Proms concert by the Ulster Orchestra and Daniele Rustioni was flagged up as being “a sumptuous celebration of German Romanticism”. It could equally be seen as paired contrasts in early and late thoughts within that phenomenon: Wagner and Mahler representing the former, Schumann and Richard Strauss the latter. Interestingly, these musicians followed in the footsteps of the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra by choosing to play the four works without an interval.

Louise Alder and Daniele Rustioni
© Chris Christodoulou

Wagner’s Tannhäuser, when it was premiered in 1845, reinforced the sit-up-and-take-note credentials of a composer whose primary interest in this stage of his career was in making big and bold statements. From a slow and solemn start – horns secure, the brass never overwhelming the other textures later on – Rustioni traversed the varying moods of the Overture and Venusberg Music, yet without much in the way of theatrical excitement. The absence of heft in the string sound merely underlined a rather chaste view of the piece, the inherent sensuousness and voluptuousness kept firmly at bay.

Mahler’s Blumine, originally conceived in 1884 as incidental music, had a brief period of spotlighting as the second movement of his First Symphony, before its excision by the composer some time later. This performance played to the strengths of the UO: the gently shimmering strings conveyed atmospheric dreaminess as shadows darkened, above which floated the lyrical cantilena for solo trumpet.

Daniele Rustioni
© Chris Christodoulou

Schumann’s Symphony no. 4 in D minor had already seen the light of day in 1841. The composer himself was highly satisfied with the revision he carried out ten years later, declaring to a friend that he “had completely redone the orchestration, and it is undoubtedly better and more effective than it was before”. Period adherents generally prefer the original version, but there is something extraordinarily cogent and compelling about a good performance in which repeated surges from the strings sustain momentum through all four movements played without a break.

In many respects, this was a very Italianate reading, with Rustioni stressing the cantabile qualities. Dramatic accents were in short supply, lightness suffused the orchestral textures, and the phrasing occasionally lacked that extra ounce of rhythmic propulsion. Even the oboe solo in the Romanze sounded less mournful than it usually does. There was a rare example of gloomy spookiness – an archetypically Romantic touch – in the bridge passage before the start of the Finale, the trombones supplying the merest daubs of sombre colour.

Louise Alder and Daniele Rustioni
© Chris Christodoulou

Louise Alder has very many qualities that mark out the ideal Straussian singer. Her upper register is quite magnificent: silvery in its brilliance, but opening out to full opulent tone where required. Clear diction and fine breath control support an evenness of line. What most impressed me was the way the voice frequently soared, recalling Shelley’s line: “And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest”. At times there was an absence of power and deeper colour in her lower register, especially in phrases like “Es dunkelt schon” in the concluding song. Throughout Rustioni accompanied very sensitively, taking care never to cover the voice. The soft horn solo at the end of September and violin solo just before the final stanza of Beim Schlafengehen were ravishingly done.

By the time Alder reached the very last line of Im Abendrot, “Ist dies etwa der Tod?”, and given that there are few composers writing today who might be deemed Romantic, there was some justification in wondering whether this was indeed the final flowering of German Romanticism.

  


 

***11