BBC SSO / Chauhan
City Halls, Glasgow
Alpesh Chauhan set himself a mighty challenge in a BBC SSO programme that receded from the tipping point of Austro-German Romanticism in the first half to its full-blown meaty excess in the second. It was in the mountainous journey of the latter – Bruckner’s “Romantic” Symphony No 4 – that the SSO’s young associate conductor had the biggest opportunity to really flex his creative powers.
The first half was anything but a simple warm up, though the opening bars of Webern’s Op 1 Passacaglia bore the distinct uncertainty of a cold start. After the theme’s initial pizzicato statement the tempo wobbled, the instrumental coordination disconcertingly slack. Chauhan establish rhythmic control quickly enough to capture the inevitability of the work’s post-Wagnerian ebb and flow. Climaxes surged, but the missing factor in this performance was the vital detailed dovetailing of instrumental colours. That’s where the soul and momentum of this music lies.
The arrival of Scots mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill for Schoenberg’s passionate Song of the Wood Dove from his epic cantata Gurrelieder, presented here in the composer’s reduced chamber version of 1922, was a moment of instant transformation. The work is a perfect fit for Cargill’s gloriously versatile voice, whether in the rich lower depths of the opening and much beyond, or in her topmost notes as the work reaches its emotional peak.
Her integral position within the small instrumental group did nothing to limit the expressive breadth and intensity of her performance. Indeed, it helped cement the overall cohesiveness and nuanced precision of the delivery, Chauhan underpinning Cargill’s high-voltage opulence with the neat, harnessed incision of the tight-knit chamber ensemble.
Then the massed ranks for Bruckner’s Fourth, brass splayed across the upper balcony somewhat threateningly but also excitingly. Chauhan’s approach was mostly clinical, which certainly facilitated the efficient flow of the symphony, and allowed its many build-ups to shake the rafters and tingle the spine. There were plenty notable moments, whether in the melancholy poise of the Andante or the rapture of the Scherzo’s outer sections.
The problem with Bruckner, though, is combining the engineering of a performance with the overriding realisation of its soul and purpose. There was a prevailing sense here that the latter was sold short. As with the Webern, Chauhan’s grasp of the big picture was tenuous, with too many psychological hiatuses and a resulting tendency to stall the momentum and invoke nervousness in some of the orchestral response. That was inevitably disappointing.
This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 1 March, and is then available for 30 days via BBC Sounds