The Oberon Symphony Orchestra play Sibelius, Liszt and the Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony

oberon-orchestraOberon Symphony Orchestra and Samuel Draper

Richard Whitehouse on the Oberon Symphony Orchestra‘s latest concert of Sibelius, Liszt and Saint-Saëns, given at their home of St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 17 September

Sibelius The Swan of Tuonela Op.22/2 (1895)

Liszt Les préludes (1854)

Sibelius Valse triste Op.44/1 (1903)

Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, ‘Organ’ (1886)

Andrew Furniss (organ), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper

Tonight’s concert (the fourteenth) from the Oberon Symphony had a strong element of Liszt running through it – not least a welcome revival of the symphonic poem Les préludes which, while its historical importance is undeniable, retains only a marginal place in the repertoire.

Although it started out as the autonomous overture to settings of Joseph Autran’s Les quatre éléments (the connection with Alphonse de Lamartine’s Nouvelles méditations poétiques was made later and its reasoning remains unclear), Les préludes is essentially an abstract reflection on the passage of life from aspiration to fulfilment, and Samuel Draper rightly emphasized the cyclical evolution of its themes as these outline a viable sonata design whose introduction and coda confirm the emotional distance travelled. The secondary themes are among Liszt’s most appealing and were eloquently rendered; if the stormy central development seemed inhibited, a convincing momentum was maintained from the ethereal interlude through the reprise then on to an apotheosis whose grandeur was shorn of bombast or unnecessary grandiloquence.

These latter qualities, wholly extraneous to Liszt’s thinking, had by the mid-twentieth century reduced this piece to little more than caricature: harmlessly in the case of its soundtrack to the adventure series Flash Gordon, but offensively so when the final bars were used to announce Nazi bombing successes during the Blitz. In stressing purely musical virtues, a performance such as this can only abet the work’s and the composer’s cause; hopefully Draper will have an opportunity to include another of Liszt’ s symphonic poems in these concerts before long.

When Saint-Saëns (retrospectively) dedicated his Third Symphony to the memory of Liszt, the latter’s reputation was still intact – not least in terms of its cyclical form, making this work the harbinger of an intrinsically French take on the genre that prospered over the next century.

Draper assuredly had the measure of this stealthy evolution across two parts. After a plaintive introduction, the Allegro took time to intensify towards the climactic reprise of its first theme, but the transition to the Adagio had the right expectancy and the latter movement was almost ideal in blending seraphic poise with a lucidly unfolding variation. Andrew Furniss ensured that the organ timbre was fully integrated into that of the orchestra – the Oberon being heard at its best in a scintillating account of the scherzo; after which, the finale was taken firmly in hand so that its big tune (did those smiles among the audience betray knowledge of its use as the 1977 hit ‘If I Had Words’?) emerged unhackneyed, while the fugal and pastoral episodes were drawn into a tight-knit and cumulative progression towards the resplendent peroration.

Prefacing each of these pieces in either half was music by Sibelius. For all its popularity, The Swan of Tuonela is among its composer’s most introspective statements. Draper brought out a sustained anguish in the strings, ideally complemented by plangent cor anglais playing from Bruno Bower. If the fraught climax of Valse triste was a little diffuse, the elegiac opening and close were tellingly rendered – underlining why this miniature rapidly became a worldwide success, and thus making the composer’s signing away of its copyright the more regrettable.

The next concert by the Oberon Symphony Orchestra, with a selection of Mozart’s arias and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (soprano Anousheh Bromfield) is on Saturday 21st January 2017

Watch the previous concert from the Oberon Symphony Orchestra, with Cosima Yu as soloist in Copland‘s Clarinet Concerto:

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website

Wigmore Hall Portrait Gallery – Christiane Karg and Gerold Huber

Wigmore Hall Portrait Gallery – Christiane Karg and Gerold Huber perform an intricate sequence of portraits of literary figures by Wolf, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Hahn and Duparc

christiane-karg-gerold-huberChristiane Karg and Gerold Huber – Wigmore Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 9 February 2015. Photos © Steven Haberland / Albert Lindmeier

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b051zyhb

on the iPlayer until 8 April

For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available:

For those unable to hear the broadcast I have put together a Spotify playlist. Christiane has recorded the Strauss songs but nothing else from the program, so I have chosen suitable available versions:

What’s the music?

Wolf4 Mignon Lieder (1888) (15 minutes)

Brahms and Richard Strauss – Ophelia Lieder (interspersed – the music is Brahms’ 5 Ophelia-Lieder (1873) and Strauss’s 3 Ophelia Lieder Op.67 (1918) followed by Saint-SaënsLa mort d’Ophélie (1857) (14 minutes in total)

Hahn – 3 songs (Lydé (1900), A Chloris (1916) and Séraphine (1896) (8 minutes)

Duparc – 2 songs (Phidylé (1882), Romance de Mignon (1869) (9 minutes)

What about the music?

wigmore-portraits
Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852) is part of the Tate Gallery collection. His painting influenced the image in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.

This is a really well chosen program from Karg and Huber, justifying the singer’s burning of the midnight oil (in the announcer’s anecdote!) to come up with some vivid character portraits that draw the casual listener in through the links between the songs. This is surely how a song recital should be structured.

Thanks to their enterprise we get an interesting blend of Romantic Lieder – that is, nineteenth century song writing that is much more obviously expressive. German composers are strongly represented, beginning with Wolf’s four settings of Goethe, and his poems on the tragic figure of Mignon.

Then our gaze turns to Ophelia, by way of five early Brahms Lieder and three late, eccentric interpretations by Richard Strauss – before a French alternative from Saint-Saëns.

Finally the heady fragrance of three sublime songs from Hahn and two more substantial, meaty efforts from Duparc clinch a consistently engaging recital.

Performance verdict

On this evidence – listening on the radio rather than in the hall – Karg and Huber are ideally matched. Their delivery is especially emotive during the Wolf, where the soprano inhabits a lot of the distress and strife handed out to Mignon.

It is a great idea to fuse the portraits of Ophelia in this way, and anyone approaching Brahms songs for the first time would be surprised at the brevity and simplicity of them. They contrast nicely with the Richard Strauss examples, where Karg shows a lot of vocal agility without ever losing control.

The French songs are sumptuous, especially the Hahn, throwing open the doors to let in some Spring light.

What should I listen out for?

Wolf

The words for these songs can be found here

1:55 – Heiss mich nicht reden (Bid me not speak) – the first Mignon setting moves in unexpected harmonic directions, never really sure of itself as Mignon seeks peace ‘in the arms of a friend’. Judging by the piano postlude this is not found.

5:04 – Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (Only those who know yearning) – a sombre minor-key opening from the piano.

7:25 – So lasst mich scheinen (Let me seem to be an angel) – a cold piano sound and a distracted vocal. Again the harmonies move restlessly, as does the melody, the song in a dream state but not at rest either.

10:47 – Kennst du das Land (Do you know the land)– a rather more positive outlook in this relatively relaxed song until a sudden outburst from the piano, which on its second appearance follows a particularly fraught passage from the soprano.

Brahms / Richard Strauss

The words for the Brahms can be found here, and for the Richard Strauss here

18:57 – the first of five very brief Brahms songs – this one a thoughtful melody with singer and piano together.

19:42 – the second Brahms song, a mere 20 seconds!

20:06 – the first Strauss song inhabits a weird world of a piano part seemingly cut loose from its moorings, and a melody that doesn’t have an obvious resting point. Mysterious but intriguingly so.

22:37 – the third Brahms song, a much brighter affair.

23:12 – the second Strauss song trips along in a state of high agitation but is perhaps too short to make a sustained impact.

24:44 – the fourth Brahms song, another incredibly brief number – but beautifully delivered here.

25:32 – the fifth Brahms song – even though it is a minute long there is still a distinctive melody here.

26:49 – the third Strauss song, and a deeply mysterious one that casts its spell immediately through the piano line, broken momentarily by outbursts in the middle and at the end.

Saint-Saëns

29:58 – an urgent song from the French composer, with the high soprano voice doubled by the left hand of the piano.

Hahn

The words for the Hahn songs are to be found here

35:04 – Lydé – a much more positive outlook is immediately evident in this song, with an open air texture and bright vocal. There is a grand piano postlude, and what sounds like a wrong note.

37:50 – A Chloris – a twinkling piano introduction has a melodic ornamentation that takes its lead from Bach’s AIr on the G string before the soprano arrives in a lower register. A contemplative song, one of Hahn’s very best, this is beautifully sung by Karg. The interaction with the piano is ideal.

40:33 – Séraphine – a calm and radiant atmosphere runs through the third Hahn song.

Duparc

The words for the Duparc songs can be found here

43:28 – Phidylé – Karg sounds imperious in her control of the fuller melody that makes the second part of this song. The exotic musical language is very much in thrall to Wagner, and reaches its peak with high notes and turbulent, stormy piano writing.

48:15 – Romance de Mignon – another perfumed song, but this is an early song suppressed by the composer. Duparc writes so well for the voice.

Encore

54:00 – Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade – going back to the first composer to write about the ‘mad woman’ Mignon, as Karg describes her. Huber shapes the piano part superbly under Karg’s urgent vocal.

Want to hear more?

It is difficult to suggest another step after such an intriguing and well-thought program, but underneath the songs of on the Spotify link above are further possibilities – including Wolf’s remarkable Prometheus, Brahms’s Four Serious Songs, in a legendary recording from Jessye Norman, and to finish some more Duparc.

For more concerts click here