While it is still the bicentenary year of Mendelssohn’s birth in 1809, I thought I should find a way to observe it. A trip to London in late July gave me the opportunity. At the Proms, a series of summer concerts held at the Royal Albert Hall in London, I had the rare chance to hear the Symphony No. 2, Lobgesang (“Hymn of Praise”), performed by the Hallé Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder. It featured one of the largest choral gatherings I have ever seen assembled — the combined forces of the Hallé Choir and the Hallé Youth Choir.
The size of the chorus was necessary, as the Royal Albert Hall — which holds some 7,000 people — is the Coliseum of the music world. It is an enormous space that eats sound alive, a problem only partially ameliorated by the huge, egg-shaped acoustic saucers hanging from the giant dome. (The decadence of Rome was suggested, deliciously so, in the first-tier boxes, where patrons may take their meals and enjoy wine during the performances.)
Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony (really his fourth) is close to two-thirds choral, with an orchestral introduction of the three movements played continuously. Although “Hymn of Praise” (1840) was composed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the invention of moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg, the text does not mention Gutenberg or printing: It comes mainly from the Bible.
The nature of the text presents the main problem with this hybrid work. There is no narrative, so the story element, present in most oratorios, is missing. The only drama is provided by the pervasiveness of the night, and then the arrival of the light. The tenor (in this case the splendid Steve Davislim) sings pleadingly and repeatedly, “Watchman, will the night soon pass?” and is finally answered first by the soprano and then the full chorus: “The night has departed.” The choral writing is thrilling. It is a magnificent and moving passage. That, however, is about it for drama. It is hard to praise God for more than an hour and keep it interesting. This is why, aside from the huge forces required, the Second Symphony is seldom played. It has been 40 years since its last appearance at the Proms.
That is the reason it was such a privilege to be there. The performance was superb; Sir Mark Elder did a marvelous job of bringing out the lyricism of the first movement. He conducted with real warmth without sacrificing the rhythmic urgency of the music. Sir Mark was so evidently enjoying what he was doing that the joy was infectious. It was joyful praise that the Halle forces captured and delivered.
I should add that the first part of the program was devoted to Berlioz: the Overture to Benvenuto Cellini and La Mort de Cléopatre. It was an ironic juxtaposition, since Mendelssohn and Berlioz regarded each other with mutual incomprehension. Sir Mark and the Hallé were equally at home in the wilder idiom of Berlioz, which was very well articulated in both works. Sir Mark beautifully captured the effect of the heartbeat underlying the last verses of La Mort, as Cleopatra’s pulse begins to fade, stops, and then picks up for a final beat. Soprano Susan Graham has a rich voice, but her articulation was a little weak at times and she was occasionally swamped by the orchestra. However, she was particularly effective in expressing the laments of the solipsistic Cleopatra who, in Pierre-Ange Viellard’s text, understands the world only in how it reacts to her.
I also had the pleasure of attending the Proms the evening before the Mendelssohn and Berlioz program. The main attraction was the Bruckner Third Symphony, performed by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, under Conductor Jonathan Nott.
The curtain-raiser was the British premiere of Jörg Widmann’s Con Brio. The piece is a deconstructionist send-up of Beethoven — a kind of challenge to catch the Beethoven if you can. Some of the dissonant shenanigans were fun: In parts, it sounded like a gang of musical delinquents had broken into a fully equipped concert hall and, without quite knowing how to read music, tried to play some Beethoven, while occasionally whacking their instruments just for the fun of it. The timpanist, hitting his sticks on the metal frames of the timpani, gave the impression of a Brobdingnagian mouse attempting to dance. In this highly gestural piece, the spirit of Beethoven tries to bring order out of the welter of sounds but only succeeds for some seconds. As a joke, Con Brio only partially succeeds and is too long at 15 minutes.
It was followed by Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, with young violinist Arabella Steinbacher. The Mozart could have used some con brio: Steinbacher, an obviously sensitive artist, played the concerto as if it were chamber music, which is fine for its intimacy, but not in the Albert Hall venue. It failed to project.
The Bamberg Bruckner performance was outstanding. Nott conducted the first version of this symphony, of which several exist, with a firm sense of purpose and direction. This was a tough assignment: Unlike some of Bruckner’s other first versions of his symphonies, which likewise underwent multiple revisions, the Third definitely needed tightening up. Nott neither lingered nor rushed; everything was well thought out and beautifully executed. The acid test in Bruckner is whether you can still hear the music during the pauses. If you cannot, then the music stops, and the symphony becomes fatally episodic. Bruckner constantly brings things into and out of perspective, as if a scene of the Alps is suddenly obscured by clouds and all one can see is the meadow; then the clouds suddenly clear, and mist covers the valley. The conductor’s challenge is to keep the whole scene in mind so that one does not lose one’s way to the final revelation. Here Nott succeeded. There is not one weak department in the Bamberg’s arsenal; they demonstrated the extraordinary quality of Germany’s regional orchestras, earning the enthusiasm of the Proms audience — and my own. Bravo Proms!
Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for InsideCatholic.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.