Friday 7 September 2007

Prom 69: Beethoven and Brahms (Chailly), 5 September 2007

Beethoven - Overture: Coriolan, Op. 62
Beethoven - Violin Concerto in D major, Op.61
Brahms - Symphony no.4 in E minor, Op.98

Viviane Hagner (violin)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly (conductor)

This was a true concert of two halves. The lack of tension at the beginning of the Coriolan Overture was sustained throughout the entirety of the first half, which made it seem even longer than it actually was. Chailly's account was not ponderous; indeed, it was almost certainly too fast. However, it was slack rhythmically - and, more importantly still, lacked any real sense of harmonic impetus. The last Beethoven performance I had heard had been that of the third Leonore Overture from the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim, and the contrast could hardly have been greater. Whereas the huge youth orchestra's members had played as if their lives depended upon it, and Barenboim had brought an almost Furtwänglerian drama to the proceedings, this performance, which suffered from a mystifyingly inadequate number of strings, was anonymous, tame and underwhelming, words which should never be attached to Beethoven, let alone to Beethoven in C minor.

The Violin Concerto seemed to begin rather faster than would be 'traditional', not that there is necessarily anything wrong with that. Yet, somehow, the first movement soon began to drag, suffering from many of the same faults as the Overture. The development section appeared to go on for ever, ending at the point of utter exhaustion (which is not meant in a musico-dramatic sense). Incidental points of interest were sometimes made by Viviane Hagner, not least in terms of her sometimes extreme rubato, but with such a lifeless 'accompaniment' they ultimately counted for little. Chailly was not an 'accompanist' in the positive, Boultian mould; instead, he seemed content merely to offer a backing to an over-extended series of rêveries. The second movement was better, flowing nicely, at times even presaging the Pastoral Symphony's 'Scene by the Brook'. Here, the previously rather nondescript woodwind were given a chance to shine. The final movement was hardly inspiring, with the first movement's torpor soon returning. Chailly seemed oddly reluctant to grant the orchestra a chance to sing, let alone to thrill. It sounded best when it sounded closest to somewhat soft-centred Mendelssohn, but that hardly makes for great, or even good Beethoven performance. It would be interesting to hear Hagner under a different conductor; given the circumstances, it was difficult to make anything much of her performance. Beethoven, however, is clearly not Chailly's thing.

Brahms, however, was a different matter. The performance of his Fourth Symphony was surer in every sense. This may not have been the last word in Sophoclean tragedy, but Furtwängler est mort, and this was a noble reading, full of insights, not least into where musical history was heading. For if one is here only a stone's throw from Schoenberg, one is perhaps closer still to Webern. That all-important interval of the third - and in its inversion as a sixth - was beautifully and incisively brought out during the recapitualtion by Chailly and his woodwind, so as to determine much of the background and the foreground of Brahms's Schoenbergian 'developing variation'.

The Gewandhaus Orchestra's strings sounded much more at home than they ever had during the first half, exhibiting some gorgeous vibrato, yet never for its own sake, but to expressive musical ends. The violins' pizzicato was sometimes quite breathtaking, not simply in terms of precision but also with regard to its sonorous beauty. The first horn imparted a due sense of Phrygian poignancy and mystery to the opening of the second movement. Truly dramatic punctuation was provided in the Scherzo by the excellent timpanist. When it came to the great passacaglia, Chailly showed a firm hand upon the structural tiller, allowing for a well-judged increase in tension throughout the final movement. After this, we were treated to a sparkling yet tender account of the Academic Festival Overture as an encore.