Prom 14 – BBC Philharmonic / John Storgårds: Single-movement Sibelius, Zimmermann, Schubert & Wagner

Prom 14: Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Louis Lortie (piano), BBC Philharmonic OrchestraJohn Storgårds

Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Prelude to Act One (c1861)
Schubert (orch. Liszt) Four Songs (1825/1815/1826/1815, orch. 1860)
Zimmermann Symphony in One Movement (1947-51, rev. 1953)
Schubert (arr. Liszt) Fantasy in C, D760, ‘Wanderer’ (1822, arr. c1850)
Sibelius Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105 (1924)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 24 July 2018

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Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

John Storgårds has given some enterprising concerts during his tenure as Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and this evening’s Prom was a further instance with its programme of mainly one-movement pieces and an underlying emphasis on symphonic cohesion, even unity.

The exception was the sequence of four songs by Schubert, arranged for orchestra by Liszt so that a tenuous cohesion is evident – without this being a song-cycle as such. Elizabeth Watts (below) duly had the measure of their predominantly sombre sentiments – ranging from the distanced recollection of Die junge Nonne, via remorseless passing of experiential time in Gretchen am Spinnrade and speculative radiance of Lied der Mignon, to visceral representation of fate in Erlkönig. Storgårds teased many subtleties from Liszt’s judiciously restrained orchestration.

Preceding this came a surprisingly dour account of the Prelude from The Mastersingers of Nuremburg. This grandest of Wagner music-dramas is also the most symphonic, not least its Prelude as it deftly outlines a four-movements-in-one format. While not being oblivious to this, Storgårds might have characterized these episodes more potently, though this may have been in line with his tendency to play down the music’s opulence and majesty. What resulted was a subdued and earnest performance that hardly marked him out as a budding Wagnerian.

Concluding the first half was the Symphony in One Movement by Bernd Alois Zimmermann; a timely hearing in this centenary year of the composer’s birth. Although the more discursive original version (complete with organ histrionics) has recently been revived, this revision is audibly more focussed in form and expression as it traverses a quirky yet combative sonata design – (modified!) exposition repeat included – before emerging full circle in a mood of unbridled ferocity. Storgårds was at his interpretative best here, maintaining a tensile course over an eventful score where influences of mid-century symphonism do not outface pointers to the intricacy or intensity of Zimmermann’s mature music. A notably enthusiastic reception suggested that tonight’s audience ‘got’ what the composer was about in this singular piece.

Time was when Liszt’s concertante realization of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy was a staple at these concerts, but this was only the second hearing in nearly six decades. 33 years ago, the soloist was Jorge Bolet at his unpredictable best, but Louis Lortie’s rendition (above) was altogether subtler as he brought out the pathos of the Andante then jocularity of the Presto. If the outer Allegro sections felt reined-in, this was not at the expense of that keen virtuosity informing Lortie’s playing in his solo passages or coruscating interplay with the orchestra at the close.

A century on, Sibelius not only ran movements together in his Seventh Symphony but fused them into a seamless and powerfully cumulative whole. Storgårds was certainly alive to this in what was a purposeful and often insightful reading; a little unsettled in those introductory pages, perhaps, but thereafter gauging the various transitions with a sure sense of where this music was headed while investing the vertiginous trombone entries with implacable majesty. One of this season’s most absorbing concerts thus far was brought to an impressive close.

On record: Zimmermann: Symphony in One Movement (Wergo)


Zimmermann: Symphony in One Movement (1951), Giostra Genovese (1962), Concerto for Strings (1948), Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu (1966)

WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne / Peter Hirsch


Wergo continues its long-term edition devoted to Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-70) with this collection of orchestral pieces spanning the greater part of his composing. This is the third such release under the direction of Peter Hirsch – who, as with Zimmermann, hails from Cologne.

What’s the music like?

As varied as Zimmermann’s output when taken overall. Earliest is the Concerto for Strings, derived from a string trio of four years before and whose trenchant ‘Introduction’, plangent ‘Aria’ and incisive ‘Finale’ evince the expected influences of Bartók and Hindemith but also Karl Amadeus Hartmann – conscience of German music during the Third Reich and mentor to numerous post-war composers.

Among the most striking of Zimmermann’s earlier works, the Symphony in One Movement is heard in the 1951 original which, less cohesive than the 1953 revision (transitions tend to be overly rhetorical), impresses with its emotional intensity and visceral organ writing. Coldly received at its premiere, the music’s expressionist manner can now be heard as ahead of rather than behind its time – any formal imperfections arising from recklessness rather than uncertainty of purpose (as in the original version of Varèse’s Amériques when compared to its revision). The composer’s observation that this work ends at the point where symphonic evolution might usually commence never felt more apposite.

The remaining two pieces are closely intertwined conceptually. Zimmermann had previously arranged selections of ‘early’ music for radio broadcast, but with Giostra Genovese he took dances by Susato, Byrd and Gibbons then transformed them to ironic, alienated and even threatening effect. A portent to similar, more self-conscious, stylistic practices by Schnittke and Maxwell Davies, it was later withdrawn and reworked as Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu – the ‘Ballet noir’ such as marks the climax of the composer’s ever more fraught relationship to music from the past.

Here those initial dances are overlaid with quotations of other composers and given a serrated edge in scoring for wind and percussion. The blackly humorous scenario sees the personnel of a liberal arts academy humiliated then executed at the hands of Alfred Jarry’s loutish ruler; a back-handed response to Berlin’s Akademie der Künste that had recently elected him a member, not least the final ‘Marche du décervellage’ with its collision of Wagner, Berlioz and Stockhausen in an apotheosis of unsparing violence.

Does it all work?

Yes, with the proviso Zimmermann’s music is increasingly not about stylistic integration or expressive poise. His concept of the ‘spherical plurality of time’, much in evidence here, may be difficult to explain yet is easy to comprehend through the visceral medium of his music.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Those who respond to these works might consider widening their listening context with the String Trio (as recorded by Trio Berlin on Wergo) and revised version of Symphony in One Movement (an incendiary live account by Witold Lutosławski on Berlin Classics, or no less authoritative one by Günter Wand on Hänssler Profil). The present disc finds Hirsch securing a committed response from the forces of Cologne Radio Symphony, vividly recorded, as well as penning an informative booklet note. Those new to Zimmermann should start here.

Richard Whitehouse

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