Karel Erben, Czech poet, 1811-70

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Kloster Eberbach, 65346 Eltville am Rhein, Germany

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

The Romanesque architecture of the Abbey Church of the former Cistercian monastery in Eltville, with its long aisle, high vaulted roof and bare walls, makes for a distinctive sound-space, a place where big choral works, the music of paced harmonic rhythms, the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, live naturally. Traditionally the opening concert of the Rheingau Music Festival (inaugurated in 1988) is given by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. This year, following the pandemic back to normal seating and audience proximity, Alain Altinoğlu was at the helm, the orchestra’s new music director in succession to Paavo Järvi and Andrés Orozco-Estrada. He opened the programme with a performance of Dvořák’s Golden Spinning Wheel (after Erben) as good as I’ve heard, up there with (if different from) Talich, Chalabala (both, however, mindful of Suk’s cuts) and Bělohlávek. It’s never an easy work to balance, dramatise or hold together, calling for a particular crispness of rhythmic articulation, a spring in the beat, as well as a boldness of woodwind, brass and percussion tutti voicing steering just clear of bombast. Altinoğlu judged it beautifully, the love imagery envelopingly tender, the big climaxes ringing off the surrounding stone, his players – cor anglais, flute, violin, horn section – at their most generous and discerning.

Mendelssohn’s eleven-movement biblical Lobgesang Symphony-Cantata dedicated to the King of Saxony – these days catalogued among the composer’s sacred choral works rather than Symphonies – is one of those compositions I’ve long had difficulty coming to terms with, too many somehow disjointed overviews or readings of excessive piety having marred my experience. Altinoğlu gave us maestoso and reflection but also plentiful con moto and brio, determinedly direct in his drive and beat. The imposing but brisk opening (subsequently unifying) trombone motif of the introductory sinfonia determined his approach from the onset, the vigour of the ensuing Allegro (albeit a couple of notches down from Mendelssohn’s crotchet 160) setting a benchmark for speed yet unanimity of attack in a reverberant acoustic. Given room to breathe and phrase, the three soloists – Katharina Konradi, soprano, Miriam Albano, mezzo, Matthew Swensen, tenor – soared. With orchestra (‘standard’ seating, cellos and basses to the right) and chorus – MDR-Rundfunkchor, in disciplined, fulsome accord – ensuring a richly grained enfoldment, the Lutheran magnitude of the perorating B-flat pages immersed one in exultant splendour: “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.”

Spool to 19:45 for the start of the music. There is no interval.

Frank Bridge’s The Sea – Alain Altinoglu conducts the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra; February 10 this year (part of a “Konzert ohne Publikum”).

Berliner Philharmoniker – Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts Brahms & Mendelssohn with the Monteverdi Choir [live Digital Concert Hall webcast].