Live review – Sara Hershkowitz, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Antony Hermus – The Ring: An Orchestral Adventure

Sara Hershkowitz (coloratura soprano, below), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Antony Hermus (above)

City Halls, Glasgow
Thursday 28 November 2019

Haydn Symphony no.22 in E flat major ‘Philosopher’ (1764)
Ligeti Mysteries of the Macabre (1974-77; 1992)
Wagner arr. Henk de Vlieger The Ring: An Orchestral Adventure (1991)

Written by Ben Hogwood

An evening of musical philosophy through three very different viewpoints, held together by superb orchestral performances and the artistry and energy of Antony Hermus, making his conducting debut with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

On this evidence it has the makings of a fruitful musical relationship. Certainly Haydn‘s Symphony no.22 in E flat major, known as the ‘Philosopher’, was carefully prepared and ideally executed. With just 26 players on the platform, and with most of them strings, the spotlight fell on the pair of horns and cor anglais players. They added unique colours and a doleful atmosphere to the profound opening Adagio, which had a steady accompanying tread. The harpsichord of Andrew Forbes was perfectly judged, complementing Haydn’s harmonic thoughts.

Orchestra leader Laura Samuel helped propel a second movement of earthy substance, which gave way to a charming Menuetto before a lively Presto wrapped things up, Haydn’s wit and inspiration in abundance once again. This was the second Haydn symphony in successive days for Arcana, after the CBSO and Riccardo Minasi’s persuasive reading the previous night. From experience a Haydn symphony a day really can go a long way – and indeed if you did two a week you would have enough for a whole year! Something definitely worth considering.

Back to the concert, and a complete change of tack for Ligeti’s uproarious and outrageous Mysteries of the Macabre, a concert piece lifted from his only opera Le Grand Macabre. And what a show it was from Sara Herskowitz, who has lived with this music some time, even on occasion dressing as Donald Trump to deliver it! Here – no doubt with the presence of BBC recording and streaming in mind – she gave Ligeti’s lines in the most sparkling of silver dresses. To say she owned the platform would be an understatement, for hers was a magnetic presence, often hilarious but frequently dazzling in its utter command of Ligeti’s demands. Using a large bottle of Irn Bru as a prop, she fair brought the house down in a performance that has to be seen to be properly appreciated. The virtuosi of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra were her equal.

Another radical change of subject and perspective saw us experience the whole of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in just over an hour after the interval. The man responsible for this orchestra-only compression is Dutch composer Henk de Vlieger, who has made a remarkable piece of music containing not just the best orchestral excerpts from the four operas but the vocal and thematic music of substance too. With some tasteful composing of his own to complement Wagner’s epic he has created a near-continuous piece of music that, while never expecting to eclipse the impact of the operas, is a wholly effective concert piece.

It helps when given the sort of commanding performance The Ring received here. The brass were simply superb – trumpets, trombones, Wagner tubas, tubas and horns responding to the considerable demands with relish, creating some wonderful sonorities while they did so. The Ride of the Valkyries was an early highlight, the theme given an appropriately majestic profile, while Alberto Menéndez Escibano‘s horn solo for Siegfrieds Heldentat, given from out the back of the hall, was brilliantly done.

The BBC Scottish strings and wind were on the same exalted level, and the Feuerzauber (Magic Fire Music) and Waldweben (Forest Murmurs) were wholly evocative and enchanting. Hermus brought a keen dramatic instinct to his conducting, including rubato where appropriate but also making the silences really tell. Even before the first note sounded he secured complete stillness in the hall, setting the tone for the performance that followed – and when other silences occurred they were impeccably observed by the audience. There was a terrific, ballsy account of Siegfried und Brunnhilde, brass again to the fore, while the violins shone in their unison passages throughout.

Antony Hermus paced the whole ‘adventure’ perfectly, meaning this ‘bite size’ Ring cycle clocked in at around 65 minutes. Do catch this concert online if you can over the next few weeks, for it was a really well constructed programme of very differing but inspiring musical works. From the elegant and sometimes earthy Haydn, through the compressed but outrageous Ligeti to the grand and spectacular Wagner, there was something for everyone.

You can hear this concert on BBC Radio 3 from the evening of Tuesday 3 December by clicking here

Further listening

You can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below, made up of some leading recordings of the works played.

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