Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Stravinsky, Haydn, Hindemith: Staatskapelle Berlin/Zukerman, 11 December 2007

Philharmonie, Berlin

Stravinsky – Concerto in D for string orchestra
Haydn – Violin Concerto no.1 in C major, Hob VIIa:I
Hindemith – Trauermusik for viola and string orchestra
Haydn – Symphony no.99 in E flat major

Staatskapelle Berlin
Pinchas Zukerman (violin, viola, conductor)

The Stravinsky Concerto in D began promisingly. That inhuman implacability of Stravinsky’s motor rhythms, the essence of his neo-classicism and yet utterly removed from ‘real’ Austro-German Classical-Romantic music, registered with considerable power. After that, however, the orchestra sounded out of sorts and simply miscast. The Staatskapelle Berlin is, after all, one of the great standard-bearers of the traditional German orchestral sound, far more so than the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. The second-movement Arioso sounded sweet enough, but the sound was more appropriate to watered-down Tchaikovsky than to Stravinskian aggression.
The outer movements brought instances of incisive rhythm, but all too often the music simply chugged along, putting one in mind – perhaps not entirely unfairly – of an updated run-of-the-mill eighteenth-century composer. This work hardly represents Stravinsky at his greatest and needs a Karajan to convince one otherwise. Perhaps Pinchas Zukerman’s mind was distracted by his forthcoming instrumental duties, since he did little to impart the urgency requisite to this music.

Haydn’s first violin concerto fared much better. The strings were slightly reduced (from twelve first violins to ten, and so forth), which maybe was not strictly necessary but nor did it do any harm. A harpsichord continuo was introduced. Again, I am not convinced of the necessity of its tinkling, but again it did no harm. Although there is a limit to what one can accomplish directing from the violin, Zukerman here proved in command of the performance. He shaped phrases nicely and imparted a measured flexibility that does not always result from such situations, especially in the hands of less experienced directors, who might be happy simply to keep the show on the road. (They would undoubtedly benefit from a conductor, although this seems increasingly unfashionable.) Zukerman’s violin tone was as beautiful as ever, which is certainly not something one should take for granted in a soloist. The absolute surety of his technique and, more importantly, the utterly musical ends to which it was put, provided a master-class in violin performance. Phrases were perfectly rounded, and there was no question of unduly dominating his orchestra. Instead, he emerged as if the senior member of one of the most distinguished string sections in the world. Each movement was appropriately characterised, without resorting to the caricatures that many performers, especially of the ‘authentic’ variety, appear to believe appropriate to eighteenth-century music. Thus the Presto finale veritably sparkled, without ever sounding hard-driven, and – a rarity these days! – the Adagio actually was an Adagio, rather than a hurried, choppily-phrased Andante. Zukerman and his players truly captured the essence, not so easily distilled, of what is in many senses a Baroque concerto in Classical style. C.P.E. Bach more than once came to mind, and not without good reason. This is not Mozart, nor is it later Haydn; there was no attempt to force this sunny work into a more ‘developed’ mould than it could take.

Hindemith’s Trauermusik also convinced, even if the level of musical invention can hardly be said to represent the composer at his most inspired, let alone to approach Haydn. The players and conductor, however, sounded convinced, which is what matters. Once again, their sonority sounded just right for the music, although here I felt that the distinct character of the work’s four movements might have been more sharply characterised. As an opportunity for Zukerman to display the equal beauty of his viola tone, however, this was an undoubted success. Not only was there an almost incredible richness to his sound; the subtleties of shading were just as impressive. Once again, Zukerman achieved the right balance between leading where necessary but also sounding as though drawn from the ensemble under his direction.

Haydn’s Symphony no.99 is, of course, music on quite a different level. It received a good performance, without ever searing itself upon one’s memory as a great rendition should. The strings were now at last joined by woodwind, brass, and timpani, which made the logic of the programme somewhat difficult to follow. It might have made more sense had this been a purely string orchestral programme, but never mind. The clarinets sometimes sounded unduly forceful, so much so that I was momentarily in doubt whether they should have been there at all. There were also a couple of surprising blemishes from the otherwise beautiful horns. The orchestra in other respects despatched the music with considerable aplomb, but there was slightly a sense of it being despatched rather than of anything more profound. The strings’ burnished tone was a joy in itself, and certainly not something to be taken for granted, but I felt a slight lack of digging deeper than the notes. For instance, the Adagio flowed without ever sounding rushed, and its harmonies ravished, yet there was little sense of how close to the mysteries of Beethoven one really is with the London symphonies. Likewise, the minuet and trio danced along merrily – and musically. But there is more at stake, not least with Haydn’s cross rhythms, than registered here. Haydn’s fabled sense of humour counted for little at the end of the finale, flawlessly etched as it was by correctly antiphonal violins and their colleagues. That said, Zukerman once again turned phrases elegantly and his chosen tempi once again seemed just right. Given some of the horrors perpetuated in the name of ‘authenticity’ – does anyone seriously think that eighteenth-century musicians were quite that unmusical? – I was not unduly worried, although I could not help thinking of the altogether more arresting experience of Mariss Jansons’s Haydn, which I reviewed in November.