|Daniel Harding, Orchestre de Paris, photo : Frédéric Desphi|
In many ways, this was a typical programming from Harding and the Orchestra de Paris. Harding is a great Schumann conductor, not only of the symphonies but works like Die Paradies und das Péri (please read more here, which he conducted with the Orchestre de Paris) which is now so well established that it's quite a jolt to remember that it was only re-discovered in the late 1990's. The Overture to Schumann's Genoveva, on the other hand is better known than the opera itself, because it works perfectly as a stand alone. I've written quite a lot about Genoveva and other Schumann ventures into music for voice. Please see here my piece on my favourite Genoveva (Masur, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester). This is relevant to this Proms performance because it shows the different ways in which this repertoire can be done. To quote Hebbel, "Any drama will come alive only to the extent it expresses the spirit of the age". "Harnoncourt's Genoveva is also extremely good, both recordings valuable because they're so individual. Harding 's approach to the Overture was fresh and lively, capturing the spirit of wonder and adventure that was Romanticism. Genoveva faces horrible challenges but is vindicated by her innate humanity. In the Overture we hear only the beginning but what a beginning it is, full of hope and expectation ! Harding made the music fly, shining with clear sighted energy.
Jörg Widmann's opera Babylon has been around since 2012, but here we heard Widmann's Babylon Suite. Suites and Overtures differ, in that suites encapsulate the larger work, while Overtures indicate the direction in which the larger piece is heading. Neat programming ! Not for nothing is the opera called "Babylon", the centre of the then known world, where its citizens built the Tower of Babel. God smite them down, scattering the people. In the notes by Schott, Widman's publishers,, the composer "put the focus in Babylon on the chaos and the suffering in a world that is out of joint and on the realization of cocky people about the need of order in a heterogenic society. The music reflects this social diversity. The Babylonian confusion is for Widmann the basic concept of his composition. A variety of musical contrasts, simultaneity and layering but also diversity and cuts give the piece its form. In contrast there is the number seven, which orders and controls the musical system." How thrilled I was to read that, not knowing the suite before because I'd intuited that there was a strong underlying structure, a method to the madness teeming on the surface. So many different musical "languages" jostling together, creating mayhem - the word "babble" comes from Babel. You could spend ages looking for each quote or near quote, but I'm not sure that's the point. In fact I heard echoes of things that aren't there, like Varèse's Amériques. That's the art of good music, it makes you think. Rather, the strength of Widnann's Babylon Suite is the way different "languages" co-exist, simultaneously, on multiple levels, going through changes almost by symbiosis. Much like the 24/7 world now, where all over the planet someone's talking though not everyone's listening. Widmann's Babylon Suite is a panorama, all the more coherent because it's highly condensed.
So we were prepared for Harding's Beethoven Symphony no 6 the "Pastoral". That's a piece which has been heard so many times and in so many contexts, that it's part of world culture, known by people who don't know what western classical music is, but enjoy it when they hear it. Because it's been done so many times, there are lots of valid ways of listening to it. Different performers, different "languages". More fool those who are threatened by diversity - there is so much in this symphony that it doesn't dim with familiarity. Harding worked with the strengths of the Orchestre de Paris - clarity, elegance, lucidity - creating an account that felt fresh and exhilirating. The first movement isn't titled "Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande" for nothing. The protagonist (not the peasants) arrives in the countryside and feels refreshed. Sure, there's a storm but storms happen, as peasants who live close to Nature know only too well. So they survive, and give "cheerful thanks". After a storm, the air is clear and the land refreshed. What Beethoven - an early Romantic, don't forget - is celebrating here is not the storm so much as the power human beings have to overcome rough times and to emerge, liberated by joy. Think about that and Harding's approach is perfectly idiomatic.