Wednesday, 30 November 2011

LPO, Jurowski, Vogt play Pintscher, Beethoven and Bruckner RFH 30 November 2011

Loud complaints from the audience are becoming a regular feature of London Philharmonic concerts. A few weeks ago, their performance of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony was disrupted by an unsatisfied patron leaving during the Adagio and complaining as he went. He seems to have set a dangerous precedent, for no sooner had Matthias Pintscher's opening piece finished when a loud voice from the back of the hall shouted "What a load of rubbish."
As it happens, he was completely wrong. Towards Osiris is an excellent work, showing one of today's finest compositional talents at the very height of his powers. The work was commissioned as part of a series of new pieces designed to accompany Holst's Planet Suite. Pintscher and Holst both excel in orchestral colour, and while their respective aesthetics are otherwise quite distinct, it is a fascinating exercise listening for echoes of Holst's great work in Pintscher's textures.
The work in structured around short punchy tuttis in an otherwise gentle orchestral texture. Pintscher creates some wonderfully complex sounds without having to rely on too much harmonic or textural density. He is great at gravelly or grating noises, usually led by the percussion, but never limited to them. At one point the texture reduces to an extrovert, bordering on comical, trumpet solo. There is a levity about it you don't usually associate with German composers. But the skilled construction, and the innovation in every phrase, is certainly in line with the best of what that country can produce.
In terms of pianists, Lars Vogt is the best Germany can produce. His performance of the Emperor was filled with quintessentially German values. This was an efficient and directly communicative reading. Vogt is able to generate some real power at the keyboard, enough both to fill the Festival Hall and to compete with the LPO, who played the concerto with a full string section. That's unusual, Beethoven usually gets quasi-chamber orchestra treatment with just three or four desks to a part. But Jurowski was obviously confident that Vogt could hold his own. Jurowski and Vogt were clearly on the same wavelength here, both intent on producing a big boned and passionate, but always clean and carefully articulated performance. The whole thing seemed very modern. So why then the period trumpets and timps? They seemed an inconvenience at best, and added little to this otherwise thoroughly symphonic reading.
The LPO has been spotlighting Bruckner throughout the season. Full credit to them for that. He is a composer who we hear too little of in the UK, partly I think because every review of the Bruckner symphony performance in the British press goes on about how the music is long and boring. But the LPO are developing an impressive track record in Bruckner, and have recently performed his symphonies with some of today's leading Brucknerians including Eschenbach, Vanska, and of course Jurowski himself.
The First Symphony is a tall order for any conductor, and any performance is going to work better in some places than in others. Jurowski knows how far he can push this music. In the first movement, he rarely tries to build the climaxes up to what he could manage in the later symphonies. On the other hand, the finale does offer a few opportunities to really push the boat out, and he never lets any of those pass him by. One aspect of Jurowski's Bruckner that really distinguishes his readings is his ability to make every movement ending work. Bruckner often ends a movement by building up to a climax and then just breaking off. Its usually sudden, requiring the conductor to decide how to pace those final bars to give them the right feeling of conclusion. Somehow, Jurowski manages it every time, and in this symphony the first, third and fourth movements all pose his this problem, but he manages to make each of those codas work.
Jurowksi finds the most interesting music in the central movements, and these are what really made elevated the performance. The Adagio was lyrical and elegant, thanks in no small part to the LPO's fine string section. Their precise ensemble and sophisticated tone allowed the music to sound far more mature than it actually is. And then in the Scherzo, Jurowski really went to town with the punchy rhythms and drama from every corner of the orchestra. Special mention should go to the trombone section, whose throaty tones and incisive accents brilliantly underpinned the tuttis here.
The First Symphony is never going to win a regular place in the repertoire, but as this evening's performance demonstrated, it is far more than just a curiosity. And given that its performances are so few and far between, we should be thankful that this one was to such a high standard.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Mahler: The New Beethoven?

There seems to have been a glut of Beethoven symphonies in London over this last couple of weeks, what with the Gewandhaus cycle and then the John Eliot Gardiner concert on Wednesday. But didn't there used to be Beethoven concerts at level of regularity all the time?
I've a theory: Mahler is the new Beethoven. So period instrument orchestras come along in the 1980s, challenging the symphony orchestras' hegemony over Beethoven. By the late 90s, it has become deeply unfashionable, in London at least, to perform Beethoven on anything apart from supposedly 'authentic' instruments. So what do the big orchestras do? They find another Beethoven, but one who lived a hundred years later, giving them a head start of a couple of years before the period bands catch up.
If you've got an orchestra of 80-90, in makes sense to base your repertoire around a composer who actually wrote for those sorts of forces. One who will keep the percussion section busy and show off the volume the brass section are capable of.
It started with Mahler 2, which is definitely the Beethoven 9 of today. Since the 80s it has been the piece to open concert halls and to celebrate orchestras' anniversaries. It has therefore taken over many, although perhaps not all, of the Ninth's many functions. And Mahler 4 is the new Beethoven 6 – the cheery one. Mahler 5 the Eroica, the one that gets played for its slow movement. Mahler 6 the new Beethoven 5, fate and tragedy two sides of the same coin. And Mahler 7 is the new Beethoven 8, the strange one between two uncontested masterpieces that gets wheeled out now and then for curiosity’s sake.
In a way, it's bad luck for Shostakovich. He too wrote effective large-scale substitutes for the Beethoven symphonies. He was fulfilling that role very well until everything became Mahler about five years ago. None of these composers is seriously under-represented in the schedules these days, but lets hope that when the double Mahler anniversary is over we can get a bit more balance among these symphonic masters.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Gardiner conducts Beethoven QEH

Beethoven: Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 9.11.11 (Gdn)
Beethoven: Egmont Overture
Beethoven: Symphony No.4
Beethoven: Symphony No.7

The glorious, frenetic sounds of Chailly's Beethoven last week still rang in our ears as we entered the Queen Elizabeth Hall, anticipating a very different take on the same music. Gardiner was well aware of the coincidence, and in his usual freindly chat with the audience, assured us that the two of them aren't as different as we might have thought. His argument was that the lively, dancing textures that Chailly now draws from the Gewandhaus are only possible because of the influence of the period performance movement on mainstream orchestras. The 'two spheres' of orchestral playing, he concluded had converged, with all aesthetic dogmas overcome.
Had that speech preceded a performance of business-as-usual period Beethoven it would have seemed staggeringly arrogant, with Gardiner taking personal credit for a wholesale revision of Beethoven performance. But it was clear from these two symphonies that he also draws influence from modern instrument performance practice for his period instrument readings.
He's not the first to try to bridge the gap from the period instrument side, but he might just be the most successful. The OAE have tried it, but their approach is to hire conductors from mainstream orchestras, Zinman from Zurich and Jurowski from the LPO, in the hope that they can make the excitement and drama rub off on the period ensemble. That rarely works, because these instruments need specialist leadership. They need a conductor who knows about the particular tuning and balance problems they face.
Gardiner, of course, is just that man, and he has come up with a variety of strategies to make his Beethoven as muscular and as dramatic as (almost) anybody's. A small string section playing without vibrato is never going to manage the same quantity of sound as a symphony orchestra. But by getting them to use every millimetre of the bow, they can certainly compete. The accuracy of their intonation also helps beef up the sound. And by taking the quiet dynamics down almost to silence, the contrasts can be emphasised in just the same way as in Chailly's readings. The Italian maestro has been taking things very fast with his Beethoven symphonies recently, and Gardiner doesn't go any faster. So they are closely matched in tempo and in the precision of their orchestras.
The main difference comes in the phrasing and the note lengths. Gardiner is much stricter about both. He won't let any notes linger beyond their notated length, even at the ends of movements. And his phrases are always tightly structured, and sometimes feel clipped. That makes the fast tempos seem all the faster. It doesn't make the performance any more pedantic, but it certainly locates the symphonies squarely in the Classical rather than the Romantic era.
The concert got off to a shaky start with the Egmont Overture. It had all the darkness and drama you could want, but the orchestra struggled with a number of balance problems. The bottom end of the strings were almost inaudible when they took up the melody, and there were some very strange sounds coming from the trumpets and the front row of woodwinds.
Thankfully, all these problems (with the possible exception of the trumpets) were resolved by the time the Fourth Symphony began. Gardiner's gentlemanly demeanour was no obstacle to some real passion here. And the orchestra have obviously rehearsed the two symphonies hard, perhaps to the detriment of the overture.
Special mention should go to the horns, who are kept busy in both symphonies, and who make sure you could not mistake this for a modern instrument orchestra. There were some lovely fruity notes from them, and from the bassoons too. The fragile, plaintive sound of the clarinets was also a delight. And the early 19th century oboes, clearly distinct in their sound even from the baroque instruments we now associate with Bach, also served to specify the era of this music.
The ensemble of the string section was excellent. It meant that Gardiner could ramp up both the tempo and the volume to bring a real sense of drama to the two finales. The last movement of the Seventh was particularly energised. He set out (attacca from the scherzo) at quite a lick, and didn't let the pace drop once until the final chord. It was quite a ride, and I couldn't help thinking that he'd had beaten Chailly at his own game.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Eschenbach conducts LPO in Brahms and Bruckner RFH 2 November 2011

Brahms, Bruckner: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Leonard Elschenbroich (cello), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 2.11.11 (Gdn)
Brahms: Double Concerto
Bruckner: Symphony No.7

Nicola Benedetti isn't usually associated with the weighty German repertoire, but it suits her style. Her tone, this evening at least, was quite woody and at times nasal too. But it projected well and had all the gravitas that Brahms requires. Her passage work isn't flawless, but those tiny slips and inaccuracies have the effect of humanising the performance rather than detracting from Brahms' plan.
And precision did come into play in the interactions between the two soloists. They are well matched, and Leonard Elschenbroich has a similar woody tone and the same approach to vibrato – expansive in the fortissimos, mostly reserved elsewhere. The skilful interplay of the two soloists demonstrates just how intricate and accomplished Brahms' writing is here. It isn't easy balancing two solo instruments of such differing size and projection (few others have tried). And when you add in the huge orchestra it seems like a recipe for poor balance and stodgy, impenetrable textures. Respect to Brahms then, and respect to Benedetti, Elschenbroich and Eschenbach too, for keeping the work clear and buoyant throughout. It is a dark piece of course, and the sombre tone was duly acknowledged in every aspect of this performance. But the elegance and grace of the playing, particularly from the soloists, prevented it from ever collapsing under its own pretentions.
Given his patchy track record with Mahler, sceptical audience members could be forgiven for fearing the worst from his Bruckner 7 in the second half. I would have been in that camp myself if it hadn't been for his recording of Bruckner's 6th with the LPO that was released last year. That is a truly revelatory recording, and probably the best Bruckner I've every heard from a British orchestra. The 7th this evening was in the same league. With both performances, Eschenbach has shown himself to be a conductor who really understands where Bruckner is coming from. The architecture always comes first, and when a tutti climax, or even just a punch chord from the brass, is structurally significant, he always makes sure it is properly anticipated and presented with appropriate gravity.
Much of this 7th was taken very slowly, especially the first movement. That is a dangerous strategy, as there is always the risk that the long phrases will lose their coherency or that the often fragile tonal relationships will lose their sense of logic. Eschenbach's approach appears to be to walk the tightrope and trust the orchestra to stay with him to keep the whole thing together. It works magnificently, especially as the tempos, slow as they are, are always elastic, Eschenbach always allowing the phrases to breath. The slow tempi have the unexpected advantage of clarifying many of Bruckner's usually obscured contrapuntal textures. He needs the strings to be able to sustain the purity of their sound and to concentrate on the logic of those long phrases, and in every case they do him proud. Elsewhere in the orchestra, the timpanist Simon Carrington was on good form. He's somebody else who has to thing on the broadest possible scale with the long buildups and tempo changes. Excellent trumpets and trombones, who Eschenbach clearly instructed to play outside of their comfort zone at the climaxes. The only disappointment was the Wagner tuba section, who struggled to maintain their balance and tuning. That was a surprise, as London orchestras, including the LPO. usually seem to be able to field an impeccable Wagner tuba section.
It is good to hear that Eschenbach's Bruckner 6 recording with the LPO was not a fluke. He is clearly a Brucknerian to be reckoned with. This is one of a series of Bruckner symphonies that the LPO are performing under different conductors in the coming months. If the rest are up to this standard we are in for a real treat.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Chailly Gewandhaus Beethoven Barbican 1 November 2011

  Matthews, Beethoven: Gewandhaus Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 1.11.11 (Gdn)
Colin Matthews: Grand Barcarolle
Beethoven: Symphony no.8
Beethoven: Symphony no.3

Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra are one of the great musical collaborations of our time. That's hardly a contentious view, but working out exactly why their chemistry works is surprisingly tricky. There is definitely an element of contrast in the relationship between his passionate Italian approach and the orchestra's Germanic discipline. Chailly clearly exploits the virtuosity of the instrumentalists for his own interpretive ends. But there is obviously a deep mutual respect here, and a shared passion for the core Austro-German repertoire.
Chailly's interpretations are always radical, or at least unconventional. Perhaps the collaboration with the orchestra seems so close because the audience are continually being surprised by the interpretive decisions, while the players are always in on his ideas. And while Chailly likes to do things differently, he rarely takes the music to extremes. These performances were characterised by continuous intensity, and there were surprisingly few pianissimos or moments of respite of any sort. Sometimes that can feel excessive, especially when each movement is presented as a self-sufficient dramatic entity. But we hadn't come for background music, and Chailly ensured that every phrase was taken seriously, clearly articulated and allowed to sink in.
The orchestra's playing really is something special. There is a deep beauty to their every note, but it's not a ravishing beauty, rather an angular Teutonic beauty. The strings have astonishing unity of ensemble. They are able to play with that rich, chocolatey sound you only get in Berlin, Leipzig and Vienna. But they are also able to turn that off, switching instead to a big, strident tone or a more focussed, nasal sound. Among the woodwinds, the bassoons excelled in the 8th symphony, while the oboe soloist was star of the 3rd. All the players bar the strings are playing instruments that you hardly ever meet on this side of Europe, so their distinctive timbre is at least partly a product of their technology.
Grand Barcarolle by Colin Matthews is one of a series of works commissioned by Chailly to accompany the orchestra's Beethoven cycle. On one level, the commissioning project seems hopelessly outdated: composers expected to justify their presence on orchestral programmes by presenting creative responses to the core repertoire in the second half. That sort of postmodernism has been going on at least since Berio and Schnittke in the 1970s, and there really isn't much more to say. Colin Matthews' response to Beethoven is, by his own admission, closer to Mahler. And it doesn't even sound like a postmodern response to Mahler, it just sounds like Mahler. But it fitted well into this programme, because Chailly's Beethoven is, in many ways, deeply Mahlerian. Had Matthews' work preceded anybody else's Beethoven it wouldn't have worked at all. But here it fit beautifully. And given the ability of this orchestra to imbue late Romantic textures with depths of colour and emotion, it would seem a waste to write anything else for them.
In London, long the capital of period performance orchestral playing, Chailly's Beethoven seems almost reactionary. It is as if he is reclaiming Beethoven's scores from the period instrument brigade. It probably doesn't seem that way in Leipzig, but even mainstream London orchestras tend to pay some kind of lip service to the period performance conventions: reducing the string sections, using natural trumpets, minimal vibrato etc. Chailly makes a big thing of his loyalty to the what he finds in the score, particularly the dynamics, articulations and metronome marks. But the result seems more loyal to the spirit of the music than to the letter.
In the 8th Symphony it works a treat. He makes no excuses for the curious structure of the work and whips up a storm in every movement. When the first two movements each stop abruptly without warning or explanation, Chailly is happy to place the blame squarely at the composer's feet. And for the rest of the time he enjoys the moment. The first movement is a propulsive and dance-like as that of the 7th, while the finale has the gravitas and power of the 5th's conclusion. The 8th worked better than the 3rd, and the many interpretive problems that the 8th presents seem to inspire Chailly's interpretive ideas, with more exciting and more convincing results.
But the 3rd was great too. Those punch chords at the very opening were clean and decisive, and there were plenty of other places in the first movement when ideas like that could appear out of the texture, a surprise each time, even when you know they are coming. Chailly doesn't let the music just play itself, and his tempo interventions can be sudden and counter-intuitive. But they always fit into the logic of his interpretation, and needless to say they never take the orchestra by surprise. The funeral march was astonishingly intense, this is where the solo oboe came into his own. The scherzo suffered slightly from the intensity of the two movements that preceded it: a higher level of energy and intensity were required of it, and it only just managed. And the finale was great. It occasionally approached a Brucknerian intensity towards the end. That's the real advantage of this sort of modern instrument approach, that intensity at the climaxes. But you need an orchestra who can maintain the ensemble and tonal control, even at the end of an intense concert. Not a problem, of course, for the Gewandhaus.
The great thing about the Chailly/Gewandhaus partnership is that the standard of their musicmaking transcends any problems you might have about interpretive issues. Chailly does take liberties sometimes. Using the two sticks of the timpani together in the second movement of the Eroica for example. Is that in the score? I'm sure it's not. And the many abrupt tempo changes that, on the face of it, work against the logic of the music. But these musicians create their own logic. It's emotional and intense and its just as good as Beethoven's.
Gavin Dixon