Like the ripples seen in a lake after tossing in a pebble, the ramifications of Covid-19 are manifold. Originally, when Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s visit with the Frankfurt-based hr-Sinfonieorchester was announced, we were promised Schmidt’s oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln. Sadly, that had to give way to this programme, but at least there was a chance to savour orchestrations by Reger and Webern of some of Schubert’s most popular Lieder.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada rehearses the hr-Sinfonieorchester at the Elbphilharmonie © Julian Kolb
Andrés Orozco-Estrada rehearses the hr-Sinfonieorchester at the Elbphilharmonie
© Julian Kolb

It is surprising that these are not more often performed in concert, though tonight’s soloist, Christian Elsner, put down a CD of a much larger selection with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and Marek Janowski five years ago. A lot of the orchestral colouring gives added weight to the vocal line, such as the lamenting horns at the end of Im Bild (from Schwanengesang), and Wagnerian blasts from the same section together with pulsating lower strings to usher in the Gothic horror of Erlkönig. In that song too there is a fiendishly insinuating flute that works its poison at “Wonderful games I’ll play with you” before timpani rolls indicate the onset of disaster.

Elsner’s warmly lyrical tenor was already on display in the first item, An die Musik. Given the current pandemic, the opening lines of “O blessed art, how often in dark hours… have you kindled warm love in my heart, have transported me to a better world!” took on additional poignancy. In Du bist die Ruh’ Elsner created a fine tapestry of dynamic shadings, rising to a height of ecstasy at “lit by your radiance alone”. Just occasionally I wished for a little more acting with the voice, a little more body language to underline the narrative.

The hr-Sinfonieorchester is one of Germany’s oldest radio symphony orchestras, founded in 1929; Orozco-Estrada has been its chief conductor since 2014. There was an apposite link between the two halves of the programme, since Schubert was one of Dvořák’s favourite composers. It also meant that autumnal melancholy which figured in most of the songs receded in the memory as the hustle and bustle of the first movement of Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony took hold.

I’m not normally in favour of slimmed-down versions of 19th-century symphonies, but there were some notable gains. Using just 26 strings, Orozco-Estrada stressed less the opulent warmth than the clarity of the textures, aided by the transparency of this particular acoustic. There was an airiness to the individual lines which reinforced the sense of an unfolding ballet, the strings moving across the stage elegantly in their chaussons de ballet before the heavy brass entered emphatically in their bottes d’equitation

Dvořák told a visitor in 1899 that he wanted to write “a nice bird symphony”. In the Adagio Orozco-Estrada, helped by his splendid woodwind players, was fully alive to the composer’s intention, the flutes sounding like blackbirds and then larks, the clarinets imitating the darkness of wood pigeons, and later in the movement the entire woodwind choir asserted themselves like chattering geese. I always warm to conductors who have something special to say about the pieces they conduct: at quite an expansive tempo Orozco-Estrada took us into Hänsel und Gretel territory once the music moved from E flat major to C minor. It was like being in one of those deep murky forests where nature itself can terrify the senses out of you.

Above all, by way of balm for the troubled soul, there was exuberance aplenty in the Finale, from the opening clarion trumpet call (which in Bohemia signals an invitation to dance) to the whooping horns at its close.

 

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