Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Bruch: Romance for Viola in F major Op.85
Schubert, orchestrated Prior: Die Winterreise excerpts
[Beethoven: Symphony No.6 in F major, Op.68 Pastoral, not reviewed]
Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
conductor: Alexander Prior
Sunday, March 31, 2019
First, apologies for the delay in this review: your reviewer was indisposed with the cold-flu bug that has passed from student to student in his classes.
There is a very long tradition of arranging Schubert – everything from a capella choral arrangements to guitar to Liszt at the piano to jazz and harmonica. My favourite ‘arrangement’ is the haunting and powerful 1978 Schubert-Phantiase for Orchestra by the Austrian composer Dieter Schnebel, based on the Piano Sonata in G major, D. 894.
It was one of a series of re-imaginings by Schnebel of older works into a cycle called Arrangements, and what he wrote about that series could be transcribed word for word about the new orchestral arrangement of selections from Winterreise by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Conductor Alexander Prior, which was premiered in the Winspear on Sunday, March 31:
“The intent here of Arrangements” Schnebel wrote, “is not only to knock off the crust of convention but also to open up the potential of the past, to carve out, as it were, its perhaps still undiscovered possibilities – in other words, to penetrate to levels which could not possibly be experienced or even come to light before today.” (translation by John Patrick Thomas)
What Schnebel has done for a Schubert piano sonata, Prior has very much done for the Schubert cycle, for although their sound worlds have their differences, both composer have clearly been aware of the great tradition of Viennese music. The uncanny thing about both works is that the music can often sound, in these arrangements, like the work of later Viennese composers – Mahler in the case of Schnebel (the whole work is like some hallucinatory dream of Mahler’s music, without changing a note of the Schubert), Mahler and Strauss, and onward to the contemporary Viennese HK Gruber in the case of Prior. What they both, in their different ways, make one vividly realize is how consistently, how strongly, that Viennese line stretches back to Schubert himself.
What Prior has done is left the actual vocal lines of the Winterreise songs alone – and very well sung, they were, too, by the young award-winning American baritone John Brancy, who has certainly developed vocally since we saw him as Papageno in Edmonton Opera’s 2015 Magic Flute. Prior has concentrated in creating a contemporary, 21st-Century orchestral accompaniment to those vocal lines that both compliments them, and comments on them. One of the arrangements’ great virtues is how well they do match the import of the words.
Before going further, though, a confusion needs to be cleared up for those who are reading this and who attended the concert. The words were very usefully (and attractively) presented in a booklet insert. Unfortunately, five of the 12 poems in the printed text (out of Schubert’s original 24) were not in fact arranged or sung, and others were done in a different order. Even worse, no-one told the audience, who were understandably bewildered, floundering around trying to find the right words, or giving up.
Here, for those who were there, are the seven songs in the order that they were played:
Gute Nacht (Goodnight)
Der Lindenbaum (The Lime Tree)
Die Krähe (The Crow)
Das Wirthshaus (The Tavern)
Die Nebensonnen (The Phantom Suns)
Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man)
Prior uses a very large orchestra, including an on-stage piano, a big compliment of percussion, and the distinctive sound (half horn, half trombone) of the Wagner tuba. The work starts with a kind of dream-like nostalgic state (entirely appropriate for the wanderer going off into the winter’s night) of an off-stage out-of-tune piano. The feel of what is to come is created by the wide range of orchestral effects in that first poem, Gute Nacht, from the use of deep brass, through sense of a Russian march inside a toyshop, and some slightly incongruous clapping from members of the orchestra, to lovely orchestral stands on “Love loves to rove – God made it so”, and finally a Mahlerian whoop in the final verse, compellingly sung by Brancy. What was immediately obvious was how well judged the sheer sound of the orchestra, and the placement of its louder moments, were – Prior always allows the voice to be heard, the vocal line to ultimately be paramount.
Richard Strauss was the element of memory in Der Lindenbaum, complete with cow bells, and snatches of the main Schubert melody heard in Mahlerian phrases. Wasserfluth saw a prominent xylophone, a return to that toy shop and the clapping, and big build up before dying away, again with a sound Mahler would have recognized, for the final line. Die Krähe takes the fantasy world a stage further, with saw and flexitone, and a high G for the baritone, and planted itself firmly in the surrealistic topsy-turvy sound world of HK Gruber’s marvellous Frankenstein.
Das Wirthshaus is perhaps the mostly obviously Schubertian arrangement of the cycle, with a lovely opening, a gorgeous solo violin moment, and a slow, stately build-up until a snare-drum cuts in to link us with the more contemporary tone. Die Nebensonnen opens with a horn quartet, again evoking Mahler, and reinforcing the phantom sunset world of the poem.
Finally, and most effectively, is Der Leiermann, where the image of the old hurdy-gurdy man evokes something worldly but other-worldly. Prior evokes sleigh-bells, but then turns the vision into something more nightmarish, ending with an off-stage snare drum, beating out a death march into the distance to close the cycle (which was the right idea, but was a little too long to be perfectly judged for the effect).
What Prior has conjured up both pays homage to the Schubert song-cycle, while at the same time creating what is essentially a new work, a kind of musical evocation of, a commentary on, the original. It is startling, entertaining, questioning, in its own right, firmly of the 20th-Century while magicking a kind of musical Pensieve, drawing memories out of the bowl from past eras, and making them relive in the present.
I can see some purists hating it, but I loved it, first for giving different depth and angle to Schubert’s settings, second for evoking those great Viennese traditions, and third for creating such a modern, multi-faceted, both reverend and at the same time a little outrageous, sound world.
Next will be Prior’s long anticipated violin concerto, commissioned by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. It is to be premiered on Friday May 31 by Simone Porter, and will be repeated on Saturday June 1.
Finally, a word for the performance that preceded the Prior/Strauss. Bruch’s Romance for viola and orchestra is not exactly regular fare (it was here receiving its ESO premiere) but it deserves to be better known. It is a kind of hot dreamy lazy days by the river with strawberries and cream piece, reverie rather than nostalgia, and one point unexpectedly and effectively matches bassoon against the solo instrument. The ESO’s young violist, Clayton Leung, well deserved the opportunity – he is so energetically involved with Edmonton musical life – and he made the most of it, with a beautiful ending in the music, the solo playing, and the orchestral sound. Good choice all round!