Retro Beethoven & Wagner from Dudamel & the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela

Concert review: Gustavo Dudamel & the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela performing Beethoven (Symphony No.5) & Wagner (Orchestral extracts from the Ring Cycle), Royal Festival Hall, January 8th 2015

Photo: Southbank Centre (southbankcentre.co.uk)

At £85 for a top-price seat at Thursday night’s RFH concert, you’d be forgiven for expecting a lot of bang for your buck; luckily, Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela were clearly set on delivering a great night for the eager audience, many of whom had booked their tickets a year in advance.

While the Beethoven and Wagner programme was very different from the modernist and Latin American works with which many of us would associate them, Dudamel and his band nevertheless brought a strong, Stravinsky-like rhythmic assertion to their performance, particularly in the Beethoven; the fugal trio of the scherzo exhilaratingly took off like a runaway locomotive. There were just a couple of untidy moments during the course of the evening but they in no way distracted from the energy that the ensemble brought to each work.

And yet, despite their usual fresh and punchy style being present in abundance, the overall feel of the concert was so old skool that the programme notes might have been written in Latin on a piece of slate. To be fair, this probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given that a Beethoven symphony followed by glorious gobbets of Wagner could be straight out of a Toscanini or Klemperer concert.

That the concert would have a retro feel was clear from the very moment that the orchestra appeared on stage – a full-bodied string section and quadruple horns and woodwinds – in a 21st century performance of Beethoven! Dudamel seemed to be channelling the super-conductors of yore in his choice of sometimes extreme tempo changes and heavily underlined contrasts. And leaving out the repeat in the final movement of Beethoven’s 5th has always been a predilection for maestros who believe that dramatic momentum should take priority over what the composer actually wrote.

However, with the exception of the second movement of the Beethoven, where a little more tempo variety would have reduced a slight feeling of blandness, this performance style was thrilling and ironically felt completely fresh, mainly down to the fact that nowadays you are most likely to hear only lean, pared-down historically informed performances of Beethoven. Despite the big sound, Dudamel kept a clear focus on the detail and a mark of a great performance is that you should always hear something that you had never noticed before, as happened for me in some of the horn and woodwind lines (helped, no doubt by the fact, that there were so many players for them).

Nevertheless, this definitely wasn’t about Beethoven the classicist, the man who wrote music of undoubted emotional power yet first and foremost music that was carefully defined by well-established structures; this was Beethoven the prophet of Romanticism, pre-figuring Wagner in his elemental fury and defiance of fate and as such the perfect set-up for the second half of the concert.

The assembled big band for the Beethoven had grown to a phenomenal size at the end of the interval, barely contained by the RFH stage. Opening the sequence of Ring orchestral extracts from the Ring Cycle was the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla, the climactic scene from Rheingold. Dudamel resisted the temptation to take the Bolivars to 11 on the dial, keeping their full power in check for later, but as such it felt a little underwhelming.

They really came alive in the second extract, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Götterdämmerung: big, big brass in the heroic Siegfried motifs and a stunning appearance of the Rhine music. This was followed by the hero’s Death & Funeral Music, which fully explored the triumph and tragedy of the scene.

I am not usually a huge fan of the Forest Murmurs which followed – it’s a bit too chirrupy for me – but that rhythmic crispness came to the fore again in the strings of the opening and reminded us of just how weird Wagner’s harmonic and tonal effects can sound.

The Ride of the Valkyrie was a crowd-pleasing finish to the sequence – I was fortunate enough to be sitting next to a chap who merrily hummed along through most of it – and was suitably bombastic in its tone although still sharp on detail of the scoring.

Always noted for their generosity in encores, the Bolivars were persuaded by the applause to give us one last chunk of lusciousness, the Liebestod from Tristan & Isolde. A fitting end to a concert where there was clearly a lot of mutual love in the hall.

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The Wonderful World of In Dulci Jubilo

If you were at last week’s PDtP you won’t have failed to notice that we got through 3 (count ‘em, 3) arrangements of In Dulci Jubilo. This reflects a certain bias towards it on my part as it’s been a favourite carol from an early age, ever since I first heard Mike Oldfield’s instrumental arrangement.

(Yes, I know it’s in a dangerously elliptical orbit around Planet Cheese but to be fair, the moment when the electric guitar jumps in with the counter-melody is pure magic.)

I then came to know the carol through its far less engaging, all-English version ‘Good Christian Men Rejoice’ (happily less and less performed these days) and then later still in its full, macaronic glory.

What has fascinated me about it ever since is the number and variety of versions and arrangements of the carol there have been over the centuries. No doubt, part of it is because it’s been around long enough (from at least the beginning of the 14th century) to attract the attention of various composers. The mixture of Latin and the vernacular has always given it a bit more of an exotic feel than most regular carols as well. But I also think that the simple melody and its myriad inherent harmonic possibilities have placed it in prime position for re-working.

I am something of a keen collector of In Dulcis, always happy when I come across a previously unknown version, so I’d like to share with you my thoughts on the Top 10 greatest (or at least most interesting) arrangements of this remarkable carol.

10. Austrian Renaissance composer Leonhard Paminger wrote several arrangements, one of which went down extremely well at our Christmas PDtP. However, for sheer oddness alone, this quodlibet stands out above the rest in combining In Dulci with two other popular German carols of the time, Resonet in Laudibus and Omnis Mundus Jocundetur.

It’s fair to say that the sum is probably less than its parts – you struggle to hear any of the carols with any clarity – but hey, it’s not every day that you get to listen to an honest-to-goodness Renaissance mash-up.

9.  For a more conventional, SATB version, look no further than Bartholomaus Gesius, a German composer of the late Renaissance. Sometimes it’s the smallest details that make a piece stand out, and that’s the case here – listen out for the little syncopated phrase in the alto part at ‘Alpha es et O’ etc. This is highly recommended if you are ever looking to do a solid, 4 part version of the carol.

8.  The first appearance of a Praetorius in the list, this is Michael P’s arrangement for two equal voices. Like Paminger before him, Praetorius appears to have had a soft spot for the carol as he made several arrangements, and this is one of the more unusual. Each phrase becomes a cell, subject to repeat and elaboration as the voices overlap with one another, creating a rather nice effect that feels almost like echoed improvisation.

7. Blink and you’ll miss this version; In Dulci is one of many carols whose first verses appear within Johannes Galliculus’s Magnificat Quinti Toni, part of the German tradition of inserting carols into a setting of the canticle for the Christmas season (Galliculus was Thomaskantor around 200 years before Bach took on the role).

It’s piece with a lot of charm, to my mind much of it owing to the sweet mini-setting of In Dulci that appears in the second section. What I really love so much about this work as a whole is that as soon as each section of the Magnificat proper begins, the choir appear to decide they would actually much rather sing the carols instead, thanks very much, and so seamlessly slip into them with neither pause nor warning, leaving the Magnificat text very much in the background.

6. Samuel Scheidt, a key composer of Lutheran music in the 17th century, responded to the text in a rather grandiose way, scoring the carol for two choirs, one of sky-high voices versus the second, lower and more earthly voices, accompanied by two soaring trumpets.
Scheidt also expands each phrase but in a very different way to the intimate interplay of Praetorius’s duet. I can never decide if it quite works as a whole but there’s no denying its impact.

5. Leaping forward to the other end of the Baroque, we find a lovely little Buxtehude cantata. Scored for 2 violins, continuo and SAB (no tenor), it’s a far lighter and less showy affair than the earlier Scheidt but it is immensely appealing in its slightly restless feel, with its melismatic treatment of each phrase plus the persistent use of the sharpened 4th and sopranos and altos in parallel 4ths in key phrases.
However, the dreamily swirling motifs disappear when we arrive at the final vision of angels singing in a celestial hall in verse 4. The strings suddenly move from their flowing figures to an eager gallop and the voices up the ante further by closing down any space for the instrumental interjections between phrases that we heard in verses 1 – 3. They also taking a more focused, almost ecstatic approach to the melody and harmony and there’s an aching longing as the repeated final phrase dies away: Eia, wär’n wir da; O, that we were there!

4. We cannot of course discuss Christmas carols without including the Victorians and Robert Pearsall’s version has rightly been a favourite with choirs and audiences since it appeared in 1837. Pearsall artfully contracts and expands the number of voices to great effect; the intimate trio of voices in the third verse becomes an 8 part choral extravaganza in the last, although he marvelously still manages to bring it to a quiet, poignant end.

3. Another Praetorius, this time Hieronymus; although no relation to Michael, he was an older contemporary. His Magnificat Quinti Toni is a slightly more sophisticated affair than Galliculus’s (it’s for double choir with intricate polyphony) but he continues the tradition of inserting carols between Magnificat verses.

Also, all four verses of In Dulci are included and anyone who was at the PDtP Christmas Special will surely agree that it’s just wonderful to sing. The double choir provides a rich texture of interlocking moving parts although the carol melody remains just about audible. It’s also over-flowing with energy and character – listen out for Alto 1 at ‘matris in gremio’/’O princeps gloriae’ etc, dozily lagging behind everyone else.

2. Michael Praetorius is back, this time with a setting that is the polar opposite of the one we heard earlier; it’s not just for 2, 4 or even 8 parts but for 357. (That is not true; it’s actually for 16 – 20 but it sure feels like a lot more.)

I often feel that Praetorius was on the 17th century equivalent of acid when he wrote it; it’s an outrageously over the top confection, with massive brass fanfares and immense block chords, although he manages to inject some sense of intimacy into the inner verses. Perhaps most bonkers of all is the opening of the final verse – the soprano soloist tries to jump in early but gets totally flattened by the full choir and instrumental ensemble coming up behind her.

Is it the most subtle arrangement? Absolutely not. Is it even particularly ‘tasteful’? I’m not entirely sure. What it definitely is is a bombastic thrill-ride through this ancient carol, pedal to the floor and handbrake turns and laughing maniacally all the while. That’s surely got to count in its favour.

So what could possibly beat this belter to the top spot? It can only be…

1. JSB. Der Meister. The musical Alpha et O, to borrow the carol’s own text. It’s quite phenomenal that, despite the rich variety of the previous 9 versions we’ve heard, Bach, using only 4 voices and a largely homophonic texture, manages to eclipse them all.

How does he do it? Through combining a stile antico feel (the modal 7ths in the opening bass and closing alto phrases, the false relation between tenor and soprano parts) with razor-sharp modulations between the home key and its relative minor; through the monumental use of suspensions, particularly in the bass part; through the close weave of the soprano and alto parts, producing glorious tone and semi-tone clashes in passing; through making the melody feel simultaneously familiar and totallly new; through all of these and more besides.

Bach’s harmonisation is sometimes used by choirs solely for verse 4 of the carol, following on from a more mundane setting of verses 1 – 3, and I can’t help but feel that he had the words to this final verse in mind when he wrote it. Listen to the descending, pealing bass line that seems to suggest the ringing bells of the text, or the generally expansive, majestic feel to the harmony that surely reflects the regis curia.

Although he also used the melody for organ preludes, this is his only SATB setting of this carol (to our knowledge); unlike his contemporaries, he never used it as a chorale in Christmas cantatas etc and I wonder if this is because he knew that he could never out-do the achievement of this standalone miniature masterpiece.

Like pretty much all of Bach’s music, we will never fully understand the mystery of it but by goodness we will enrich our existence whilst contemplating it!

So there you have it – the Top 10 In Dulci Jubilos through the ages. Which ones have I missed? And do you violently disagree with any of my choices…?

Counterpint: it’s not a spelling mistake

Hello

As I have been very much enjoying getting stuck back into the world of choral singing and classical music through the shenanigans of Polyphony Down the Pub, I am going to try my hand at a bit of blogging.

I’ve called the blog Counterpint because a) it was the alternative title to Polyphony Down the Pub and b) it will appear at the top of google searches by anyone who is researching fugues/canons etc whilst not using a spell-check.

Thanks for reading!