|John Eliot Gardiner, photo Sim Canetty-Clarke|
The start of a major Schumann series with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican: Schumann Symphony no 2 in C major op 61 (1847) and the Overture to Genoveva with Berlioz Les nuits d'été, soloist Ann Hallenberg. Gardiner is one of the great Schumann conductors of our time, so the LSO are right on the mark, choosing him to head their Schumann series, which began with this concert, continues on 15th March and into 2019. A major series, whose importance cannot be overestimated. Perhaps we can hear Schumann all the time, but rarely at this level of excellence.
Gardiner's approach to Schumann is inspired by a deep understanding of the composer's aesthetic. It's a mistake to assume that period-informed performance means period instruments It has much more to do with understanding the composer's idiom and practices which might enhance performance dynamics. The LSO doesn't use period instruments, but achieves werktreue effects by other means. The players didn't sit down to play but instead stood up throughout. Immediately, you could hear the difference. You'd need cloth ears not to notice, even if you didn't know "why". Because the players were closer together, the sound was more concentrated, achieving volume without having to force the instruments, the sound projected from a few feet higher than usual, intensifying the interaction between players and podium. Chamber-like sensititivty, in a large (ish) ensemble. The musicians could move freely, flexing their bodies naturally, without the rigidity that comes from sitting down. This flexibility flowed through to the music, which felt direct and spontaneous, textures bright and clearly defined. Gardiner's Schumann is agile and alive, revealing the composer's true originality.
Gardiner preceeded Schumann's Symphony no 2 with the Overture to his opera Genoveva, which he began at around the same time as he wrote the symphony. The connections go deeper. The original folk tale on which Genoveva is based dates back to the Middle Ages. Indeed it’s the basis of stories like Snow White, for in legend, Genoveva lived in the forest, protected by animals and by her virtue. Significantly, though, Schumann rejected the medieval concept, choosing instead to base his opera on Friedrich Hebbel’s more psychological drama, published only four years previously. Schumann wanted a “modern” take on the story. As Hebbel said “Any drama will come alive only to the extent that it expresses the spirit of the age which brings it forth”. The Overture sets the stage, introducing the themes that will be developed more fully in the opera. It's marvellous, but listen to how it zooms into a chorale, and then into the opera proper, rather like successive proscenia in a theatre add depth to a flat stage. Schumann's doing dramatic perspective with music.
Schumann's Symphony no 2 begins with another brass chorale, which here came over without stridency, the "brassiness" muted and dignified, integrating well with the bassoons, winds and strings. How poignant the horns and winds sounded, evoking Nature, hinting at the deep sources of the Romantic imagination. Moving from sostenuto to allegro, Schumann then creates a wild scherzo where notes seem to fly in fiendishly complex patterns, though the themes are sharply defined. Schumann 2 is unusual, because it mixes serene passages with oddball quirks. The last movement is sublime, but it's undercut by the moody bassoon from the Adagio, which Schumann told a friend was when he heard his "half sickness" calling him. Yet he had a "special fondness" for this strange melancholy , which infused even the happiest moments of his life. Who but Schumann could have written Dichterliebe as a wedding gift after having struggled so long to win Clara from her father?
Throughout this symphony there are oblique references to Bach and especially to Mendelssohn whose Midsummer Night's Dream music casts a magical glow on the Adagio. The assertive, affirmative confidence of the final movement seemed to come straight from the spirit of Beethoven.
Genoveva and Lohengrin both premiered in the summer of 1850. Wagner disparaged Schumann, as he disparaged Mendelssohn (Schumann’s hero). Since Wagner’s opinions were influential, Genoveva has been eclipsed, and most late Schuman undervalued because it doesn't fit the Wagner ethos But Schumann’s ideas on music and music drana stem from sources earlier than Wagner, and might have developed an alternative path had he continued writing after the age of 45.
Between Schumann's Overture to Genoveva and his Symphony no 2, Berlioz Les nuits d'été op 7 (1841). Gardiner is also a great Berlioz conductor : remember his Damnation of Faust last year ? (read my piece here). The immediacy of Gardiner's style adds punch to the song cycle, enhancing dramatic tension. Ann Hallenberg was a good soloist, not especially French, but in the context of a Schumann series, that's perfectly apt.
This concert was also broadcast live, part of the LSO live initiative. This itself is news, since it enables the LSO to reach international audiences online who might not otherwise be able to attend concerts, even when the LSO goes on tour. This particular concert seems to attracted less than the number who logged in for Bychkov's Mahler symphony no 2, but that's fair enough. Mahler is box office, while Schumann and particularly up-market Schumann is more esoteric. It will be interesting to see what the next live stream draws on April 11th (Mahler 10, Simon Rattle, Michael Tippett The Rose Garden) The economics of livestream are hard to measure. This concert reached about as many as would be seated in the Barbican, but will continue to attract viewers on Youtube for a longer period. The knock-on effect should also be felt in CD/DVD sales. Long term, streaming enhances the profile of the orchestra, and reaches a wider public.