Thursday, 10 December 2015

Zimmermann/LPO/Zweden - Wagenaar, Lindberg, and Beethoven, 9 December 2015

Royal Festival Hall

Johan Wagenaar – Overture: Cyrano de Bergerac, op.23
Magnus Lindberg – Violin Concerto no.2 (world premiere)
Beethoven – Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Jaap van Zweden (conductor)

This was a strange concert programme, whose internal logic I found and continue to find difficult to fathom. The London Philharmonic was on excellent form throughout; otherwise, there was not much to unite these works. Moreover, Jaap van Zweden’s conducting of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, whilst starting promisingly, proved a decidedly mixed blessing.

One can hardly begrudge a work more or less unknown an occasional outing, but I really cannot understand what would possess someone to conduct Johan Wagenaar’s Cyrano de Bergerac Overture. Its opening flourish is so clearly derivative of Don Juan, as are a good few other, strangely decontextualised progressions that Strauss would surely have had a case for plagiarism. Not that the piece, of course, in any sense approaches Strauss in quality. Stale bits of Brahms seem as though they are there to provide padding, but rarely succeed in doing so, at least coherently. It begins pleasantly enough, soon becoming merely tedious. The conductor’s irritating, sub-Bernstein podium manner did not help.

Magnus Lindberg’s Second Violin Concerto benefited not only from fine playing from the LPO but quite stunning virtuosity from Frank Peter Zimmermann, not only in the cadenza but throughout. Zweden’s conducting, the visual element aside, could hardly be faulted either, insofar as I could tell. It certainly seemed that the composer received a true performance of the work. What of the work itself? In three movements, the first two of them connected without a break, its strongest point seemed to me to be its construction (something one could certainly not have said of Wagenaar’s piece). The opening solo, open fifths on the violin, is soon questioned by the orchestra. Intervals and their working out sound in this first movement strongly suggestive of Berg: there are worse models! Even towards the beginning, though, there is a stronger tonal pull. Orchestration is colourfully (post-)Romantic, sometimes, especially in its use of celesta and harp, strongly echoing composers such as Bartók and Prokofiev. Harmonies and indeed orchestration seem to become more and more overtly Romantic as the work progresses, at times edging, bizarrely to my ears, towards Khatchaturian (if rather more careful in its construction). There is a point in the final movement at which I thought the work had finished, but then it started again, moving ever closer to a Hollywood film score; there is more, much more, of the same to come. One passage sounds – I should like to say ironically, but I really am not sure – extremely close to the Waterfall in Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. I found myself longing for another performance of Boulez’s Anthèmes 2, such as I had heard in the same hall a few nights earlier.

The first and second movements of the Beethoven symphony fared best. Above all, one could relish the full sound of a decent-sized, uninhibited symphony orchestra, an increasingly rare occurrence in this music. Violins were not split, but clarity was such that there was no overriding need for them to be. There was some splendid raucousness from the horns too. Quite what Zweden meant in a programme quotation saying ‘There are still people who play Beethoven like Brahms. And that I refuse to do,’ was unclear; I have never met someone who claimed to play Beethoven ‘like Brahms’, although I suspect the ‘authenticke’ brigade might have accused him here of doing just that. Rhythms in the first movement were nicely sprung, although the harmonically-founded inevitability of a great performance (think, for instance, of Daniel Barenboim) was lacking in an ultimately sectional reading. The exposition repeat, for instance, merely sounded as if we were starting again, unmotivated. Zweden took the Allegretto faster than I think I have ever heard it. Any element of a processional was banished, but there was a highly creditable command of line, which put me in mind of no less a conductor than Herbert von Karajan – albeit, if you can imagine so implausible a thing, Karajan in a rush to catch the last bus home. The LPO’s cultivated, variegated playing was a joy to listen to. Sadly, the third movement resembled a caricature of Karajan in less flattering light: one of those faceless, breathless Beethoven symphonic recordings from the 1970s. We were spared ‘authenticity’, but it did not seem that Zweden had anything to say. (The contrast with recent performances from Christoph von Dohnányi and Oliver Zeffman was stark.) There was grandeur to some elements of the Trio, but it was unclear where it had come from, or indeed where it went. If you were a Toscanini fan, I suppose you might have liked this. The finale was unsmiling in similar vein, but to a greater degree: quite absurdly hard-driven, despite unerringly fine orchestral playing. Zweden occasionally brought out subsidiary parts to no obvious end. It was, I am sorry to say, a bit of an ordeal.

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