Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Prom 69: Abboud Ashkar/Gewandhaus/Chailly - Mendelssohn and Mahler, 7 September 2009

Royal Albert Hall

Mendelssohn – Piano concerto no.1 in G minor, op.25
Mahler (ed. Cooke) – Symphony no.10

Saleem Abboud Ashkar (piano)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly (conductor)

Judging by the warmth and sheer volume of the applause this concert received, most of the audience reacted a great deal more ecstatically than I did. At least the end of the concert proved a valuable opportunity for a minority menace to do something other than cough, talk, or, in some cases, sound their electronic equipment. Small mercies and all that...

The first Mendelssohn concerto was performed extremely well by Saleem Abboud Ashkar. I first heard him in 2006, in the Mozart concerto for two pianos, with the Vienna Philharmonic no less, under Riccardo Muti; reacquaintance found Abboud Ashkar equally impressive. Possessed of a pearly tone, not unlike Murray Perahia, he imparted a Mozartian beauty to the piano part, also hinting at Schumann and Brahms in the opposite chronological direction. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly played well enough and, in the case of the woodwind, quite magically at times, though the sheer ease in this idiom with which the orchestra played under Kurt Masur and often Herbert Blomstedt did not seem so readily apparent here. Some of Chailly’s direction in the first movement was hard-driven, though he proved able to relax on occasion. Yet I am afraid I could not bring myself to be wildly excited about the work itself. It has its moments and, in the slow movement, rather more than that. But hearing Abboud Ashkar made me wish I were hearing him in Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, or Brahms. Even those passages that sound closer to the inspired magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream throw into relief what is missing elsewhere. Prettiness need not always be disdained but there seems to me quite a lot of note-spinning in this piece: pleasant enough, and more substantial than anything by the briefly and incomprehensibly fashionable Hummel, but little more than that. Perhaps one of the perverse advantages of intensive anniversary coverage is to make one realise the gulf, at least in many cases, between a composer’s good and great works on the one hand and, on the other, the rest. If, on the other hand, we had been treated to more Haydn...

Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, as edited by Deryck Cooke – I realise that the situation is far less straightforward than that, but sometimes shorthand is helpful – was, I think, the second live performance of a Mahler symphony I ever heard. That performance, from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Mark Wigglesworth, was also the second live Prom I attended. Sometimes one romanticises early experiences. However, not only can I say that that performance knocked me for six at the time; I can also report that listening to a BBC recording thereafter has barely dimmed my enthusiasm. The Welsh orchestra is perhaps not the most refulgent in tone and lacks the pedigree of the Leipzig band – though is the Leipzig pedigree right for Mahler? – but Wigglesworth’s direction is clear, dramatic, and makes an extremely strong case for Cooke’s edition/completion/call-it-what-you-will. I was considerably less convinced by this performance, which moreover made me harbour greater doubts than I have previously entertained concerning the edition. In theory, I suppose that could mean a good performance revealing shortcomings – consider, for instance, Boulez and his reservations concerning Schoenberg – but I do not think that was primarily the case here. Anyway, a performer would usually, with a few celebrated exceptions, consider himself to be counsel for the defence.

First off, this seemed a very lengthy account. Whether that were the case in reality, I have no idea, since, for better or worse, I am not one of those listeners prone to take timings. I am certainly no foe of broad, expansive performances in any repertoire; but that is a different matter from sounding as though it might never end, which the opening Adagio came very close to doing. Part of the problem seemed to be Chailly’s penchant for excessive underlining of the closing both of phrases and paragraphs. The caesura can be an integral part of Mahler’s style and, in the right hands, this can be accomplished without disruption to the longer line. Here, however, there was a strange, indeed paradoxical combination of smoothness and yet stopping and starting. By contrast, a performance last year from Vladimir Jurowski of the Adagio alone had certainly been expansive and might well have lasted for longer than this, but so intensely dramatic had the music-making been, so seamless had the musical golden thread proved, that I had merely regretted that it could not go on for longer.

Another problem I had was the sound of the orchestra, or rather of the strings, which simply did not sound right for Mahler. Perhaps it is no coincidence that I greatly admired a Brahms Fourth Symphony from Chailly and this orchestra at the Proms a couple of years ago, for often this is what it reminded me of. I missed Viennese sweetness or at least a convincing substitute. The darkness did not sound like the right sort, or at least a right sort, of darkness. Somehow Daniel Barenboim managed to accomplish a similar trick with the Staatskapelle Berlin in 2007 with the Seventh Symphony. I still do not quite know how, but his achievement would still seem to very much an exception – and it did not work during the Fifth. I should probably mention too that the Berlin strings were a good couple of degrees richer in tone than their Leipzig counterparts. Or perhaps it was the auld enemy of the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustic. Barenboim, after all, had the Philharmonie...

Another thing missing for me was the malevolent darkness, as opposed to the darkness of string sound, in the first scherzo. However, I should note that David Matthews, in his truly excellent programme note – quite a change from a number of Proms contributions this year – described Mahler as not having ‘written a scherzo so free from malice since the Fifth Symphony’. Overt references aside, my difficulty was that this sounded all too much like the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony – and that, I should contend, is far from untroubled. More worryingly, textures, especially during the scherzi, sometimes sounded as if something were missing. Of course, in a very real sense, something is – but unless this were intended as a critique of Cooke and the Matthews brothers, that is perhaps not something of which one should really be aware. On the other hand, there was some truly extraordinary woodwind playing, which I noticed with something bordering upon amazement in each movement. The alternation of icy, Webern-like purity and pastoral warmth in the Purgatorio was utterly convincing. Indeed, it set me thinking that this is precisely what Purgatory should be like: invigorating purification, just like Webern. The three clarinets in the final movement once again sounded spot on, evoking both Mozartian Harmoniemusik and the Berg of the Violin Concerto’s chorale. This movement and the Purgatorio seemed to me the strongest – and I should certainly recall the superlative percussion contribution with which the orchestra groped towards its opening.

I have deliberately written very much in the first person, since I have a sense that much of this was about my reaction, not just in the sense that others clearly reacted very differently, but also that this concerns differently held approaches to and understandings of Mahler. When the music sounded on the threshold of the Second Viennese School, especially Webern, I was most captivated, but for long stretches it seemed to me not merely ‘late Romantic’, but ‘late Romantic’ in a not entirely appropriate way. With Barenboim, a surprising relation to Brahms had worked in the Seventh Symphony, even if it might rarely be suggested by the score in itself. Whilst there was much to appreciate here, I remained unconvinced by the interpretation as a whole, except in the rather troubling – but perhaps necessary? – sense of the doubts elicited concerning the edition. I shall now perhaps look again at some of the competing completions, which would doubtless be no bad thing.


Doundou Tchil said...

I was waiting for this, having seen you in the distance last night !I was also at the Wigglesworth concerts and loved the recording which came free with a magazine. There wasn't much competition then, and in recent years it hasn't stood up. In this piece more than ever a really good orchestra is important because so much is hinted at rather than fully realized. The Leipzigers and the VPO succeed because they have an extra warmth and glow in their playing that opens out the spareness of the orchestration without actually adding anything. Instead, lingering vibrations, sounds that hover : rather like the idea of an incomplete symphony. Besides Mahler would have been thinking in terms of orchestras like the Gewandhaus which he knew even though not quite the same players ! Also the "Alma" themes are primarily strings, so warmth and lushness add to the richness. I loved the delicacy of this Adagio for this reason. In full symphonic guise the Adagio needs to be restrained bc the balance of the whole would be compromised if it's done full throttle like it can be as a stand alone. Chailly undertands. Similarly Scherzo 2 was excellent - the spareness reflecting the way Mahler set out the sketch. moderated not by extra notes but by the expressive playing.

This Chailly was more refined, more elusive than earlier Chailly M10's which take the Devil motif etc literally. But I wonder if that's what Mahler really was going to do ? Hence Chailly leaves the question open, just as Mahler himself did : you fill the gaps in your mind.

The Daniel Harding recording is much edgier, sharper, much more "The Devil rides with me" and cognizant of what we know of GM's personality and intellect. Harding's Finale is amazing, utterly devastating at first, then opening out to extreme light and purity. Chailly otoh connects more to the Alma ambience, hence the softness and grace. Both approaches have their merits : both resolve in clear transparency.

Without Alma, why "to live for you, to die for you" and that impassioned "Almschi!" ? So there is a lot to be said in favour of the "Alma" ambience and the elusive glow Chailly's getting from the Leipzigers. Indeed I've bee with the luscious sound the Liepzigers can do.

Oddly enough I'm fond of the Wheeler version - the most spartan of all, with emphasis on brass and perc. But it lacks the Alma warmth and without Alma where would GM and the symphony be ?

Last night I wrote a lot about Chailly's Purgatorio which pulled the whole together rather well. See your list or

Anonymous said...

Dear Mark,

I totally agree with you regarding Abboud Ashkar's performance. His aristocratic-intelligent phrasing and tonal finesse are indeed impressive among today's young pianists. I recommend you to listen to his live recording from the Ruhr's festival last year, where he played Schoenberg op.11, Bach 2nd english suite, Schubert D.537 and Brahms op.116. It's a raw recording from Moers which displays what a great fresh mind he possesses and to what extent his pianism is delicate and refined though the live recording is not the best and probably he himself wasn't fully concentrated.

What do you have to say regarding Clements' review in the Guardian. Was he in another concert?

All the best.

Doundou Tchil said...

Opinions are never going to be the same. What matters isn't the opinion per se but how that opinion has been arrived at. Matk and I often agree so closely it's spooky ! But even when we disagree, we've both come to our conclusions by caring, engaging, learning.

Mark Berry said...

One of the problems with so much of what is written in the newspapers is that reports are so short that any sort of explanation cannot even be attempted. However, in this case, I think there is something else to consider. Especially when it comes to any music written before the late nineteenth century, the Guardian's chief music critic often seems to have attended quite a different concert. Or to put it another way, I have noticed on numerous occasions that he is likely simply to disregard performances that are not very much of a 'period' persuasion: an ideological response all too common today.

Saleem Abboud Askar's performance certainly - thankfully - had no truck with such modish concerns, but was rather, as you say, imbued with an aristocratic tonal quality I found most beguiling. Perahia I mentioned above but Pollini sprang to mind on occasion too. I must seek out the recording you mention, which of course has repertoire far more interesting than the Mendelssohn concerto.

Anonymous said...

I think you are quite right regarding the Guardian's chief music critic.

The young Pollini's nobility of expression spring to mind too when listening to Abboud Ashkar but also Radu Lupu's delicate finesse, and he seems to combine both to some degree.

I think i would never ever forget his Mozart's 9th concerto with the Dresden Philharmonic last March. To my humble opinion, it was an interpretation that outclasses Brendel's recent farewell traversal in every respect! The voicing was operatic par excellence marred with rare sense of rubato and phrasing. And on top of all that his signature aristocratic tone.

I would for sure attend his next Mozart performance even if it requires cross-Europe voyage.

Mark Berry said...

Well, as *every* musician knows, Mozart's music is the most difficult of all; it requires but one thing, perfection, so anyone who can perform Mozart as well as that is clearly worth travelling for... A propos of which, don't forget Sir Colin Davis conducting Figaro at Covent Garden in May.

John Babb said...

Are your blog and the reviews your write Mr Berry are not ideological responses of your own?
For a brief momement I thought you were becoming more enlightened -

"I have deliberately written very much in the first person, since I have a sense that much of this was about my reaction, not just in the sense that others clearly reacted very differently, but also that this concerns differently held approaches to and understandings of ....."

Gavin Plumley said...

As I've said before, the Davis-Mozart axis for me is not one of perfection, but a lifeless ironing out of wit and quirkiness. Mackerras for me any day.

Mark Berry said...

Well, if you prefer breathless to breathtaking, to be hurried instead of beguiled, to be assaulted rather than ravished... Having said that, I thought Mackerras's recent Don Giovanni (http://boulezian.blogspot.com/2008/09/don-giovanni-royal-opera-12-september.html) for Covent Garden was much, much better than his Figaro(http://boulezian.blogspot.com/2008/07/le-nozze-di-figaro-royal-opera-12-july.html), which I really could not stand, though again I seem to be in a small minority here. But give me Sir Colin (http://boulezian.blogspot.com/2007/07/cos-fan-tutte-22-july-2007.html) over just about anyone else nowadays.