Monday 28 July 2008

Prom 15: Daniel/BBC SO/Robertson - Beethoven and Carter, 28 July 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Beethoven – Grosse Fuge, Op.133
Carter – Oboe Concerto
Beethoven – Symphony no.5 in C minor, Op.67

Nicholas Daniel (oboe)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson (conductor)

There are doubtless all sorts of connections to be made between Beethoven and Elliott Carter, to my mind the greatest American composer to date. However, I am not so sure that they were really made in this programme, notwithstanding the presence of that most ultra-modernist of Beethoven’s works, the Grosse Fuge. Instead, we had a well balanced if relatively short programme: nothing wrong with that, but it felt like a bit of a missed opportunity when one thinks what one might have chosen to follow the first two items. Perhaps the Fifth Symphony was there to boost the audience; if so, the ploy seemed to have worked, for there were few empty seats.

‘Though intended for string quartet,’ Barry Cooper wrote in his note for the Grosse Fuge, ‘the work can have an even more overwhelming effect when played, as tonight, by orchestral strings.’ I hesitate to disagree with so distinguished a Beethoven scholar, but disagree I do and strongly too. For me, some – though by no means all – of Beethoven’s radicalism is lost when the piece is transferred from a quartet, audibly and visibly straining at the bounds of what is possible, to the plusher sound of an orchestral string section. It is similar to the problem I have with the transcription of Verklärte Nacht; whilst I am happy to hear alternative versions, the real bite remains with the original. A Klemperer perhaps can make me change my mind momentarily when it comes to the Beethoven. However, despite this performance’s virtues, David Robertson is no Klemperer when it comes to Beethoven. The signs were promising: no half-hearted compromise with a chamber-size section, but full Romantic strings; if one is going to do this, one might as well do it properly. Violins were split, which paid off in conveying the echoes, imitations, and contrasts between the two violin parts. There was some beautifully hushed playing in the second of the three principal sections of the work: mysterious yet, unfortunately, also a little mushy. The double basses made a treasurable impact when they were included. And there was, in the final, compound duple section, an encouraging sense of fragmentation, of Beethoven bringing us to the very modern problematic of the unity of the work of art itself. The syncopations were well handled here, which added to the instability. And yet, the performance could have done with more of this throughout. It was good, yet it suffered a little from understatement. Whatever the Grosse Fuge may or should be, understated does not spring to mind.

Carter’s Oboe Concerto was written in 1986-7, shortly before he was eighty, so doubtless qualifies as relatively ‘early’, given the composer’s extraordinary late fecundity. It is written for solo oboe, a concertino group of four violas and percussionist, and orchestra, actually more of a chamber ensemble, comprising flute, clarinet, horn, trombone, two percussionists, and viola-less strings. Written in one continuous stretch, its twenty minutes or so nevertheless comprise something akin to the classical fast-slow-fast three-movement-structure of a concerto. The performers, all of them, did Carter proud. Indeed, it sounded as if this were a repertory piece, in which the players were as much at home as the composer with its modernity: just what a performance of new(-ish) music should be. Nicholas Daniel drew upon considerable twin reserves of musicality and virtuosity and blended them. He did not mask the sometimes extreme demands – the concerto was written for and inspired by Heinz Holliger, no less – but nor did he allow them to become his principal concern. Throughout, as with all of the players, there was sense to be made of the ever-changing and yet ever-present compositional line. Carter’s polyrhythms came across, as they should, although this is no mean feat, as the equivalent of melody in rhythm. Time played its tricks and kept its command, for which Robertson must be apportioned a great deal of credit. Carter’s skills as a colourist were not denied, the percussionist from the concertino group deserving especial mention in this respect. The sense of temporal progress and sonorous transformation as he switched from vibraphone to glockenspiel was an object lesson in rescuing his orchestral section from the charge of being mere purveyors of ‘effects’. But it was with the oboe alone that the concerto so memorably faded into nothingness.

What is one to do with Beethoven’s Fifth, given that most of us will have performances from Furtwängler, Klemperer, the Kleibers, Karajan, Böhm, etc., etc., burned into our memories? Robertson was quoted in the programme as saying, quite correctly, that we have ‘lost all sense of how radical Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony really is’. I wish that he had made it sound more so, for what I heard was a perfectly decent account, better than many of the merely perverse treatments it would receive today, yet never shocking and never truly inspiring. Once again, we had a good-sized orchestra, with sixteen first violins and other strings in proportion. Perhaps this should be partly attributed to the hall’s acoustic, but it rarely sounded as if we had so many. There was once again, I felt, a certain understatement to the performance, which is certainly not a quality for which I seek in this work. The first movement hurried along reasonably eventfully, but the splendidly implacable coda did not really seem to arise from what had gone before. Its true vehemence ought to have been unrelentingly present from the outset. And by vehemence I do not mean the unpleasant blaring we sometimes had to endure, here and during the scherzo, from the horns. The Andante was unquestionably con moto, perhaps a little much so, but there is plenty of room for different interpretations here. When it occasionally sounded too driven, I thought that Robertson overstepped the boundaries, but I suspect that many would have felt differently. He was successful in eliciting a sense of mystery from the orchestra and eventually a fine sense of momentum was built up. The scherzo followed immediately and at quite a breakneck tempo. This just about worked but the same tempo was simply too fast for the trio, in which the ’cellos and double basses sounded breathless. (A certain pay off, arguably, was the sense of connection with the Grosse Fuge.) Second – and rightly, final – time round, the scherzo purveyed an excellent sense of the ghostly, forcing one to listen closely to Beethoven’s still-wondrous scoring.

Unfortunately, mystery was quite absent from the humdrum transition to the finale, when this should sounds as one of the most extraordinary passages in all music. Day broke forth effectively enough, if a little on the fast side once again. However, the orchestra soon sounded somewhat tired. This was less so when repeated. There were some exultant moments in the finale and the piccolo shone as it should, yet there were equally some moments that were faltering or merely nondescript. I speak deliberately of ‘moments’, since the whole never quite added up, nor did it speak of the metaphysical. Karajan once advised Simon Rattle to ‘throw away’ his first hundred Beethoven Fifths, testament to what a difficult work this is to bring off. I have heard worse, much worse, but I have also heard much better, if mostly from great recordings of the past. Sometimes I wonder whether we really know Beethoven at all, although there is always Daniel Barenboim to put me right on that score.