Sunday 29 June 2008

Brahms: the Romantic - Philharmonia/Maazel, 28 June 2008 (1)

Royal Festival Hall

Brahms – Symphony no.3 in F major, Op.90
Brahms – Symphony no.4 in E minor, Op.98

Philharmonia Orchestra
Lorin Maazel (conductor)

This was the second of three concerts entitled ‘Brahms: the Romantic,’ with Lorin Maazel now conducting the Philharmonia, having previously presented the series with both the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. The size of the orchestra encouraged: none of this miniaturist nonsense concerning a supposed re-creation of Brahms in Meiningen, as if that were the only orchestra with which he worked. Even if it had been, that would have precious little to tell us today. Rather we had a ‘standard’ Romantic string section of proportions Nor was there any hint of the frankly ludicrous non-vibrato approach trumpeted by Roger Norrington. In other words, music rather than dubious ‘historical’ claims – which, in fact, are characterised by a complete lack of historical understanding – came first. Division of the first and second violins – a practice the ‘authenticists’ have outrageously claimed as their own, as if Furtwängler and countless other conductors had never lived – was not followed, but Maazel showed that one can still register the interplay between them without a fully antiphonal physical separation. He also showed that there are passages which can benefit from having the lower strings seated further away: a salutary reminder to those of us who are too ready dogmatically to favour the alternative.

The fullness of the Third Symphony’s opening wind chords was most encouraging, as was the subsequent richness of the lower strings: one might have been in Dresden. There were fine contributions from the principal oboe (Christopher Cowie) and the pizzicato strings. However, the first movement as a whole was surprisingly sombre, not least on account of its slow tempo. There are of course all sorts of ways to understand Allegro con brio, but I felt that this performance often lacked both components of its job-description. Added to that, there were numerous instances of slowing down, with the result that the music almost ground to a halt. Somehow the structure remained admirably clear, as it would throughout both symphonic performances, but drama was often lacking. Maazel wrote in the programme that a conductor ‘conversant with the sonatas, trios, quartets et al., can learn to eschew rhetorical flourishes, saccharine pulping of phrases and maudlin dawdling’. There was not much of the first two qualities but I can only wish that he had followed his own advice with regard to the third. The opening of the second movement was better. Clarinets and bassoons sounded positively Mozartian in the opening, attentively answered first by a pair of horns and then by lower strings. The violins sounded silky-smooth when they finally entered. Although the general tempo was again rather slow, it was ruminative and yet forward-moving; it did not drag. This allowed some gorgeous – if at times a little Tchaikovskian – sounds to emanate from the orchestra, not least from the ’cellos. They also took the lead at the opening of third movement, with the first violins once again silky in their response. This was a case when the orchestral seating truly paid off. Horn (Nigel Black) and oboes solos were especially remarkable for their warmth. The movement retained its intermezzo-like character despite the slow speed, although it was a somewhat sombre example of its kind. The opening of the finale brought with it some much-needed tension, yet the movement soon became a little too stately. The celebrated quiet ending sounded exhausted rather than peaceful, in spite of a splendidly ominous kettledrum roll from Andrew Smith. Maazel’s interpretation on clearly resulted from a considered approach, if sometimes a little exaggerated in that respect; yet its sombre, even somnolent quality was not really successful, at least for me. Brahms sounded sapped of his vitality – and this in a work in which I at least think of him as standing close to the spirit of Haydn.

The Fourth sounded very different and was on the whole more successful. Those celebrated opening thirds, from which the whole of the symphony’s Schoenbergian developing variation results, sounded a little too sectionalised. I certainly have nothing against underlining the legacy for Schoenberg, Webern, and even Stockhausen, but the intervals form part of greater structures too. The analytical approach began to pay off more clearly, however, when one heard far more of the crucial inner parts, for instance the violas, than is often the case; this aided rhythmic impetus as well as motivic development. It is worth remarking here the outstanding contribution from the violas throughout, and that of their guest principal, Joel Hunter; one could see as well as hear the dynamic leadership he offered to his colleagues. The icy tragedy of the first movement’s conclusion was extremely well judged. However, the opening of the Andante moderato sounded a little too stentorian; the horn solo sounded far more beguiling the second time around. That said, the contribution of pizzicato strings was faultless; moreover, when the violins took up their bows against the plucked lower strings, they truly took flight. Full vibrato intensified the strings’ consoling role. At times, however, the movement dragged a little, as was highlighted by the vigorous opening of the scherzo. This movement sounded magnificent; every section shone, and one should not here forget the crucial contribution of the triangle. Tension was maintained throughout, which continued into the finale. There was an ominous tread from the very beginning, although this was occasionally imperilled thereafter by excessive sectionalisation. (At least the great passacaglia’s structure was crystal clear.) That said, there was a majesty to the slowest sections that impressed on its own terms; to the rest, there was a vehemence that ultimately struck the right sort of tragic note.