Franz Schreker in 1912
Franz Schreker in 1912
How refreshing it was to see Franz Schreker’s name on a programme next to established classics by Schoenberg and Ravel! The Austrian composer’s 1918 opera Die Gezeichneten, the overture to which opened the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert with Josep Pons, has yet to be seen in the UK, and there is much unjustly neglected music to be heard amongst the Austrian’s oeuvre. Next to poignant elegies by Busoni and Ravel, as well as the latter’s erotically perfumed Shéhérazade (with Nora Gubisch) and Schoenberg’s early masterpiece the Chamber Symphony no. 1, the 20-minute overture was no mere trifle but an integral and major part of the evening. Such a shame, then, that its performance did not seem so careful and measured as that of several of the other works on the programme. Innovative programming showcasing the huge variety of sounds from the beginning of the 20th century – all these works were written within 20 years of each other – was let down by very mixed execution from Pons, however beautiful the BBC SO’s playing may have been.

Begun in 1913, the overture brings together many of the themes that saturate the sordid, decadent world of Die Gezeichneten in a lush tapestry of orchestral colour. The orchestra is huge, and the music infinitely rich in layers; unheard-of colours spring jubilant from Schreker’s nigh-unwieldy canvas, and it takes an iron will and steadfast control to cut through the thicket of details and produce a convincing musical narrative. Unfortunately, Pons did not meet the demands of the score and the result was rather messy. With overenthusiastic brass never restrained from dominating the orchestra, much of the string-led melody in tuttis was lost. Perhaps more gravely, much of this had rather too much Korngoldian, film-music sheen and not enough of the dark, post-Romantic intensity it needs; brought off all too ably by the BBC SO, the music lacked danger and urgency. Despite this, there were good moments. Climaxes were shatteringly loud and voluptuous, but it was the string section – when one could hear them – led by Stephen Bryant, whose solos were ravishingly gorgeous throughout.

Josep Pons
Josep Pons
The other piece for large orchestra on the programme suffered from similar issues. Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no. 1, which closed the concert, is a masterpiece of concision, the birth of a new, hard-edged modernism to mirror Viennese architect Adolf Loos’ doctrine that “ornament is a sin” in musical terms. Written in 1909 for a smaller ensemble, the original orchestration complements perfectly the tough counterpoint and totally focused saturation of musical thought in this rip-roaring 25-minute symphony. In Schoenberg’s 1935 transcription for large orchestra, which adds triple wind, two extra horns, full brass and full strings, as well as extra lines and fuller harmony. Unfortunately, this piece needs none of these. Contravening the spirit of the piece would be one thing, but the return of the same balance issues that plagued the Schreker was a real shame. What’s more, just as in the Schreker, this sounded all too easy; a full cello section will never have the bite of the original’s soloist in the exposition’s urgent rising theme. This lack of bite was the fundamental issue throughout, making one of Schoenberg’s most intense and breathtaking works merely noisy.

What made this a real shame for me was that, between Schoenberg and Schreker, there had been some really first-rate music-making. Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque features some orchestration that perplexed even Strauss’ ears, and the BBC SO created perfectly the intimate atmosphere and highly refined sense of sorrow Busoni’s often strange harmonies evoke. The reduced ensemble was perfectly balanced, with highly expressive woodwind solos. A different world altogether from Ravel’s Shéhérazade for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, with the orchestra and Pons providing expert support for Nora Gubisch. Though her reading lacked a little eroticism and frisson, clear diction and a fabulously rich tone were the perfect vehicle for the wonderfully pseudonymous Tristan Klingsor’s words. The orchestra were brilliantly self-effacing throughout, but I must mention a wonderful flute solo from Michael Cox in the second movement, and irresistible string tone once again throughout.

The stand-out performance of the evening, though, was the other elegy on the programme, Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte. Pons and the BBC SO found the perfect moving intimacy for this chef d’oeuvre of elegant simplicity, with Martin Owen’s horn solo beautifully judged in its expressive manipulation of tempo, matched with ease and panache by Pons. Likewise, Michael Cox’s flute playing was just as expressive as it had been in Shéhérazade. This was a real pleasure to hear; I just wish such loving care had been the rule for this programme rather than the exception.