Though a great deal of music might be deemed idyllic, there are not many works that call themselves idylls. One in particular had to wait until 1962 for its first performance, almost sixty years after its composition in 1904. Mention the name of Anton Webern to your average concertgoer and the reaction you often get would qualify for a lemon award, but this Webern (like the early Schoenberg) is a quite different animal. Im Sommerwind shows the strong influence of Wagner and Strauss and, to English ears at least, the kind of tone-painting reminiscent of his contemporary Delius. It formed the opening work in this concert given by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester under its chief conductor, Alan Gilbert.

Alan Gilbert
© Peter Hundert | NDR

This is the kind of music which Gilbert does really well and which makes its mark in the crystalline acoustics: written for a very large orchestra (including six horns, five clarinets and two harps), Webern uses his dappling of orchestral colouring sparingly. It has the gentlest of beginnings, the merest rustle of leaves in balmy summer air, violin trills suggestive of lark-song, until after 15 minutes it sinks back into a state of dreamy reverie. The poem that inspired the composer to write this piece speaks of “the masses of entwined blackberry tendrils and the tousled heads of pine trees”, with moments of oboe-led jollity in the central section: it is essentially a hymn to nature. 

Both in the Webern and in the accompaniment to Berg’s Violin Concerto Gilbert dispensed with the back desks of his string section, an indication of the lean and transparent sound he was aiming for. This provided ideal support for the finely spun line of golden silk coming from Frank Peter Zimmermann’s instrument which then broadened out into a rich tapestry of scintillating colours. He moved seamlessly through the differing episodes depicting the character of Manon Gropius, capturing the headlong impetuousness of a teenage girl as well as her doe-eyed dreaminess, savouring the capriciousness of the more delicately scored moments (angry trombones and tuba indicative of the nearing tragedy), and giving tender expression to the Bach chorale with which the final section drifts into a mood of resignation. Zimmermann’s final ascent heavenwards into the ethereal regions of his upper register was perfectly judged.

Gilbert’s way with the First Viennese School, here represented by Brahms’ shortest and most personal symphonic statement, emphasised the links with the first half. It was strong on structure (with the exposition repeat in the first movement) and transparency, the lightness of the sound redolent of later neo-classicism. This was achieved largely through constant highlighting of individual and collective contributions from the woodwind section, giving this symphony the character of a Prosecco rather than a rich burgundy. In Brahms, it is now fashionable in some quarters to strip away all the connective tissue and muscular fibre in order to reveal the bare bones of each melodic line, with those beguiling harmonies in the strings a pale shadow of themselves. Repeating the reduced string complement of the first half (the six double basses providing little bedrock), this was as lean as it gets, rhythmically alert, but without much expenditure of emotional energy.

Any 19th-century symphony struggles in these acoustics to reveal its reservoirs of warmth. Having recently heard what the SWR Symphony (never mind the Bavarians!) can achieve in the Elbphilharmonie, I feel this NDR orchestra, despite all the energetic vigour coming from Gilbert on the podium (who conducted from memory), still has some way to go. Instances were tell-tale touches of raggedness in ensemble and over-careful playing from the back desks.