Friday, 27 June 2014

Philharmonia, Salonen, Batiashvili, Latry, RFH 26 June 2014

Saariaho: Maan varjot (UK premiere)
Sibelius: Violin Concerto
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2
Olivier Latry (organ)
Lisa Batiashvili (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Royal Festival Hall, 16 June 2014

Esa-Pekka Salonen hasn’t conducted much Sibelius in London. But given he’s (among many other things) a Finnish music specialist, audiences here could well have anticipated that he’d demonstrate a mastery of the music. This evening he did exactly that, showing not only that he’s learned well from his many Finnish predecessors, but that he also has his own distinctive vision.
The Violin Concerto and Second Symphony were presented in an all-Finnish programme that began with the UK premiere of a new work by Kaija Saariaho, Maan varjot, a co-commission with three other orchestras that was given its first performance in Montreal at the end of last month. Its presentation here marked one of the final stages of the “Pull Out all the Stops” festival celebrating the restoration of the RFH organ. True to form, Saariaho avoided the idea of the guest instrument being a concertante soloist, and the relationship between organ and orchestra was complex throughout. The score is filled with her trademark subtleties and complexities, the textures often involving all or most of the orchestra, but rarely loud. Tremolos or complex woven lines in the middle voices, the violas for example or the woodwinds, create a subtly textured bed upon which to rest longer lines in the upper and lower voices. The organ occasionally rises to a position of dominance, but more often supports the orchestral textures with inscrutable, complex harmonies in the upper register or pulsing bass notes from the pedals. The work is structured in three movements, the character of which suggest, at least tangentially, a concerto format. The slow second movement gave Saariaho the opportunity to explore more intimate relationships between sections of the orchestra and corresponding registrations in the organ. The last movement begins with a toccata flourish from the organ, but that’s Saariaho’s single concession to triumphalism, and the music soon returns to her more muted and complex textures. The piece was played well, by orchestra and soloist alike. The composer seemingly had little interest in showcasing the talents of the celebrity organist for whom it was written, Olivier Latry, or even the capabilities of the newly-restored organ, a shame on both counts. Still, this was a great demonstration of the benefits that the newly restored organ will bring to concert life here, making performances like this possible, and without stealing the show.
In the event, the show belonged to Lisa Batiashvili, whose Sibelius Violin Concerto was one of the standout performances of the season. Her casual mastery of what is considered by many the most difficult concerto in the repertoire seemed to be a given from the very first notes. But the style, poise, elegance, and carefully regulated drama she brought to the work put her into another league. Batiashvili has an utterly distinctive tone, which she maintains through even the knottiest of passagework. It is complex and warm, slightly nasal and in some ways introverted. But it’s very elegant and it has a singing quality to it. The only quality it lacks is the grand, strident character that Sibelius sometimes demands, especially in the finale. A constructive tension quickly emerged in this performance between soloist and conductor; Salonen gave a more opulent and symphonic reading, while Batiashvili maintained a more intimate tone. But it worked well. There were never any balance problems, and the orchestra’s responsiveness to the soloist held the performance together, even when their expressive aims diverged. Batiashvili’s understated mastery really came into its own in the last pages, where the music gets more and more flamboyant in its virtuosity, and yet she continually refuses to break her controlled demeanour. The crowd went wild, and rightly so, this was a very special performance.
It was followed by a short encore, a recent arrangement of a Ukrainian folksong by a Georgian composer (I didn’t catch the name), part of a work he describes as Requiem for Ukraine. Again, Batiashvili used her calm, focussed stage presence to impressively powerful effect, this time for more political ends. The political influence exerted by classical musicians is an issue of seemingly endless debate, but Batishvili demonstrated here that making your point with no great fuss or fanfare, using the direct line of communication that your talent permits, has far greater power and resonance than some of the more gratuitous stunts we have recently seen from other performers.
The Sebelius Second got a revisionist reading in some ways from Salonen, yet not to the point of antagonising more traditional tastes. Phrasing was often clipped, tempos were always provisional, and clarity of texture always took precedence over atmosphere. Yet, despite all this micromanagement, the bigger picture was never compromised, and the playing was suitably expansive when required. The orchestra was on top form, especially the strings, with all those pizzicatos in the cellos and basses given with absolute precision. Given that the concert opened with what must have been a very difficult new work, it was impressive that Salonen also found the time to rehearse, and rehearse well, the more familiar symphony. Once or twice his approach seemed a little too constricted. The build-up into the finale for example wasn’t so much a process of tension and release as just a carefully graded crescendo. But it was clear that Salonen always knew what he was doing. It turned out the reason he had underplayed that particular passage was so as not to pre-empt the similarly dramatic lead into the coda. And the ending was just magnificent. Like Batiashvili at the end of the concerto, Salonen gave us understated power here, with plenty of volume from the orchestra, but plenty of detail too. In the end, it turned out that Salonen had provided all the qualities that make a Sibelius performance great, the grandeur, the majesty, the expressive focus, but he’s done it in a distinctive way that was all his own.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Tabea Zimmermann Wigmore Hall 12 June 2014

Bach: Sonata No. 1 for Solo Violin
Kurtág: Three pieces from Signs, Games and Messages
Reger: Suite in G Minor op. 131d/1
Hindemith: Sonata for Solo Viola op. 25/1
Bach: Cello Suite No. 3

Tabea Zimmermann this evening gave a whistlestop tour of major contributions to the solo viola repertoire down the centuries. Bach has long been a member of that pantheon, despite not having written any works for solo viola. But by framing the programme with transcriptions of Bach’s violin and cello works, Zimmermann was able to show just how influential they have been in this repertoire. That provided a useful handle on the more recent works, some of which is fairly demanding on the listener. Yet nothing ever seemed a challenge, thanks largely to Zimmermann’s engaging but unassuming musicianship, and to her warm and always engaging tone.

The Wigmore Hall acoustic is ideal for many instrumental combinations, but it’s not usually put to the service of a solo viola. As it turns out, the sound here is about as ideal as could be imagined for this alto-cum-tenor instrument, particularly in Zimmermann’s hands. Her playing style is very definite, and often strident. The acoustic picks up the details of her quiet playing, sharing the intimacy to all present, but amplifies and projects the louder passages, particularly in the lower registers, which it imbues with a rich, cello-like sonority.

That was as true of the Bach Violin Sonata as it was of his Cello Suite, perhaps more so. No mention was made it the programme of how much transposition had taken place in the arrangement for viola, but plenty of this music was in the instrument’s lowest register. Zimmermann’s performance was gutsy and visceral, with plenty of rubato shaping the phrases. The only clue that the work was not originally for viola was the presto finale. It’s a fingerbuster on the violin, but on the larger viola the challenges are even greater. Yet Zimmermann made no concessions, playing it as fast as any violinist, and with just as much clarity and grace.

The three pieces from Signs, Games and Messages are typical Kurtág: short, aphoristic, but otherwise almost impossible to describe in words. The second of them had been written for Zimmermann, and listening to her performance of all three, it was clear why her playing of his music had inspired the composer. When he writes pp ornaments, wholly disembodied and appearing in the very highest register, for example, she dispatches them with ease. His guttural glissandos retain their edge under her bow, but seem as natural as any other playing technique. And her ability to switch between the absolute extremes of dynamic from one bowstroke to the next gives her the advantage over almost any other player approaching this repertoire.

In any other context, the Reger Suite would seem to be music of extremes, but following Kurtág it seemed positively genteel. In fact, the more useful comparison here was with the Bach that opened the programme, and not only for the similarities. It is a commonplace to say that Reger’s solo string suites are modelled on Bach, but in fact there is more going on. Zimmermann emphasises all the Baroque counterpoint, but also acknowledges the music’s late Romantic dimension, all those lyrical lines and chromatic transitions. But there is plenty of counterpoint (or pseudo-counterpoint) in here too, which she presents with clarity and zest. Like the Bach Sonata, Reger’s Suite ends with a fast movement, and the technical virtuosity here was extraordinary.

Anybody who has heard Zimmermann’s recent recordings of Hindemith’s solo viola works will know that this is music in which she particularly excels. The Op. 25/1 Sonata that opened the second half was the highlight, and the focal point, of the programme. However appropriate the music of the other composers may have seemed to the viola’s qualities, it was clear from this work that Hindemith had the clear advantage of actually playing the instrument himself. The music is often brash, and often austere, but there is a beguiling beauty to it as well, and Zimmermann perfectly captured its many paradoxes. Hindemith writes big-boned, muscular music for the viola, which is ideal for Zimmermann as that is exactly the style in which she excels most. She’s capable of subtlety and nuance as well, of course, but the very forward, direct and honest style of Hindemith’s mature music brings out all her best qualities.

That was really the climax of the recital. It ended with Bach’s Third Cello Suite, but that felt more like an epilogue. The dimensions of this music are smaller and more intimate, and Zimmermann made no effort to expand it to the scale of the previous works. Instead, we heard a performance of great agility and refinement. The sound of the bow against the strings occasionally crept in under the narrower tone, and the attacks on notes became as important as their pitches. For the final movement, the Gigue, Zimmermann adopted a positively rustic tone, folky and earthy, with the music propelled by an insistent underlying rhythm. 

A varied programme then, but one that showed off many aspects of Zimmermann’s prodigious talent. The Wigmore acoustic served her well, although the sheer confidence and body in her tone suggested that she’d sound good anywhere. The recital didn’t fill the hall, or even come close, which was a shame, but was received with rapt attention and rapturous applause by the small but enthusiastic audience.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Philharmonia, Westbroek, Dohnányi, RFH 5 June 2014

Strauss: Four Last Songs
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9
Christoph von Dohnányi: cond
Eva-Maria Westbroek: soprano
Philharmonia Orchestra

As the final, ethereal chord of the Bruckner’s great Adagio faded to silence at the end of this evening’s concert, somebody behind me whispered to their companion that the conductor, Christoph von Dohnányi is 84 years old. I’d never have guessed. He’s the kind of conductor who seems eternally young, always in control and always focussing his orchestra on the interpretation he has in mind. In fact, there were a few holes in this evening’s performance, and in retrospect it may be fair to blame these on a lack of vigour from the podium. In general, though, the results were serviceable, in only rarely inspired.
In the first half, Eva-Maria Westbroek sang Strauss’ Four Last Songs. She is a real presence, and effortlessly dominates proceedings. Her performance was very “operatic”, her voice rich and vibrato-laden, her every phrase deliberate and emphatic. There was much of her trademark Sieglinde here (although thankfully little of her Anna Nicole Smith) and her grand musical gestures often seemed out of scale with Strauss’ more intimate ideas. While everything she sang was elegant, much of it lacked delicacy. So, for example, her pickup from the violin solo in the third song was a sudden switch from introverted nuance to big, brassy tones. (That impression was amplified by the sheer quality of the violin solo, from Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, the horn solo by Katy Wooley in the previous song also deserves a mention). In general though, Westbroek provided a Struassian rendition, but one that would have been more at home in Salome or Elektra than here.
The original programme for this concert began with Leonore 3 and ended with Mahler 1. The reasons for replacing both with Bruckner 9 were not stated, and where perhaps down to a whim of the conductor. If so, concessions can certainly be made given his advancing years. He has some experience with Bruckner’s symphonies, especially with the Cleveland Orchestra, but for London audiences his relationship with this composer comes as news. His reading of the Ninth was focussed and dynamic (not to labour the point, but impressively dynamic for his age). It was a little rough round the edges, and not everything worked, but there was enough great music making here to make it worthwhile. Dohnányi had clearly focussed his rehearsal time on certain key passages, and at many of the important structural junctures, clear lines came shining through in the strings or woodwinds, leading the way into the following section. He adopted a wide range of tempos, usually sticking to his guns once a section was in progress and rarely shaping phrases with overt rubato. But accelerandos often went from very slow to very fast in a short space of time, and the tuttis they prepared tended to be very loud. So loud, in fact, that the players often lost control of their tone, especially the brass section.
The Scherzo was on the fast side, and the sense of propulsion that Dohnányi injected made up for a lack of punch in the accents. In fact, this happened throughout the symphony, with Dohnányi looking for weight and power from his players but never quite finding it. Some of the orchestral playing was sloppy, especially the ensemble in the tuttis. In one, near the end of the first movement, it sounded briefly as if the whole thing was about to fall apart. But the quality of the playing came and went. The opening of the Scherzo sounded reasonable the first time round, but by the time the Da Capo came around, they had regained their form and the contrast between the two renditions was striking.
Fortunately, the final Adagio worked better. Dohnányi again adopted a wide range of tempos, some, but not all, on the fast side. But now the players did everything he wanted of them, and the unity of ensemble, especially in the strings focused and directed the long, lyrical lines. It seemed throughout the symphony, and in the Strauss too, that Dohnányi   was looking for a more direct and open sound than the orchestra were used to, but in the Adagio he and they found the ideal middle ground. And the final passages were sublime, both the flute solo and the Wagner tuba chorale emaphatic and clear, but also nuanced and finely balanced. The whole concert seemed to be a journey towards this point, it was just a shame that it only really came together at the very end.