Jeanette Jonquil (clarinet), Monica Huisman (soprano), Sarah Fryer (mezzo-soprano), David Pomeroy (tenor), Alfred Walker (bass), UBC University Singers and Choral Union (Graeme Langager, director), VSO/ Bramwell Tovey: Works by Wagner, Beethoven and Brahms, Orpheum, April 9, 2016.

 Photos courtesy of Vancouver Symphony

Photos courtesy of Vancouver Symphony

Such is the movement towards historically-informed orchestration these days that one wonders why one would attempt Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with twice as many players as originally prescribed.  The answer lies in the theme of this festival, ‘The War of Romantics’, featuring works from well-trodden ground of the mid-to-late 19th century when the conservative camp of Brahms and famed critic Eduard Hanslick would play off against the defenders of the ‘new music’ of Wagner.  A ‘mammoth’ version of Beethoven’s Ninth seemingly enters the fray through the back door, illustrative of how composers of this period updated earlier great works to fit with the growth in the size of orchestras over the course of the century.  The ‘updater’ in this instance was Gustav Mahler, and the performing edition was the one Mahler would have used between 1900 and 1910. However, that was only one surprise at this concert: we also saw for the first time Luciano Berio’s (1986) concerto transcription of Brahms’ First Clarinet Sonata.   

As David Pickett’s informative blog reveals, an authorized Mahler Edition of Beethoven’s 9th has already been performed by Leonard Slatkin in the U.S. and five other times in Europe.  A Mahler Edition of the Schumann symphonies also exists, and Riccardo Chailly was good enough to put that on disc a decade ago.  The only slight unease connected with the current programming is that Mahler was hardly part of the original ‘War of the Romantics’ debate that started around 1850 and subsided before 1880, and neither was Beethoven.  Beethoven’s presence is more easily justified on the grounds that both Brahms and Wagner lived in his long shadow, yet starting with Liszt might have been more on the mark.  Mahler was clearly a later protagonist, not wanting any link to Wagner, often citing the purity and economy of his own romantic expression as supplanting anything in the 19th century.   

The simple reason for Mahler’s updating was the expanding size of the string sections in 19th century orchestras and the difficulty for winds and brass to fully penetrate their mass.  Thus, as the great conductor he was, he doubled the winds, added the extra brass (now 8 horns, including a tuba part), and augmented the timpani to rectify this problem.  No one has ever regarded Mahler’s adjustments as untasteful; they simply served a functional purpose, and really made no substantive changes to the music as such.  The only irony in this performance is that I thought that the winds were actually too loud at a variety of points.  This is not exactly a puzzle: much as I would like the strings of the Vancouver Symphony to have the weight and breadth of the turn-of-the-century Vienna Philharmonic, they simply don’t (even with augmented numbers), so Mahler’s adjustments don’t actually fit that well. Yet I was intrigued by the extra weight in the horns, and brass in general, creating a certain bucolic feeling and burnished weight, and making the overall texture more Brucknerian.  The tuba addition sometimes stuck out in a bizarre way, though the instrument might get a better balance within a more massive orchestral sound.

This performance moved well through the first two movements, purposive and maintaining a strong brisk line, and I enjoyed the bigger weight of the sound.   The augmented timpani in the opening movement’s middle climax came off well, giving additional power and fire.  The tempo for the Scherzo was almost perfect, and it was charming to see the eight ‘whooping’ horns cope with their part so well – very rustic and very Brucknerian.  The great Adagio started with beautifully cultivated string playing and a fine sense of repose, moving out very naturally.  Sadly, this did not fully carry on, and the music seemed to lose its lyrical arch and flow towards the end, becoming short-winded and almost serenade-like. It is especially in this movement that I felt that the winds were too loud.

The finale started with considerable poise, but then seemingly took off in search of the spectacular.  The opening was particularly well drawn with a sensitive presentation of the ‘famous’ theme.  Alfred Walker’s bass recitative was also eloquently presented.   Then, a more frenzied feel took over, the quartet sort of driving forth with much less vocal shape or balance, with the chorus singing for all they were worth.  I think that the UBC University Singers and Choral Union can achieve an admirable, full-bodied blend, and are terrifically enthusiastic, but they do need consistent effort in stabilizing their balance and poise. And their seams showed fairly quickly under this intensity, particularly in their blending at the top end and in their ability to sustain notes fully.  David Pomeroy’s tenor aria was also somewhat too projected and excitable. While the great fugue was done with clarity and purpose, at other points I missed the care over dynamics (not soft enough) and the recognition of the stillness and spirituality in the proceedings.   I suppose that the ending was spectacular but it was pushed forth so strongly that it seemed to achieve a more Verdian gravitas than Beethoven’s characteristic grit and life-force.  Interestingly, the movement seemed shorter to me than it ever has.  

As far as orchestration goes, there were some noticeable marching-band effects from the brass and some trumpet augmentations as well, but I felt these added little and possibly subtracted.  We can be thankful that Mahler did not add an organ pedal, although Elgar likely would have. Overall, this had the makings of a really fine performance, and while I understand the desire to ‘inspire’ on opening night, I still think that more care, patience and consistency in the work’s later parts would have produced the richer result.  But good to hear the Mahler Edition in any event.

As for the second ‘surprise’, the Berio orchestration of the Brahms Clarinet Sonata, I thought it was a striking success. Berio obviously cherishes Brahms, and time and time again his orchestration turned out to be quintessentially Brahmsian.  It seems that the model was the two Serenades, which have a particularly nice fluency and motion.  The winds and horns fit to a tee and the use of the timpani to reinforce dramatic thrust on the strings was done with intelligence and taste.  The strings also had the right type of flexibility and point.  The soloist seems to follow the original part identically.    Jeanette Jonquil is a very accomplished clarinetist, and brought a lovely smoothness to the whole, not least the Andante.  Perhaps I could wish for stronger dramatic accents at the top of runs, but this was fine indeed.

© Geoffrey Newman 2016