Saturday 31 January 2009

Salzburg Mozartwoche (2): VPO/Rattle - Haydn, Mahler, Debussy, and Mozart

Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg

Haydn – Symphony no.88 in G major
Mahler – Rückert-Lieder
Debussy – Danse sacrée et danse profane
Mozart (completed Sir Charles Mackerras) – Recitative and aria: ‘Guinse alfin il momento – Non tardar, amato bene’, KV 492/28
Mozart – Symphony no.40 in G minor, KV 550

Magdalena Kožená (soprano)
Xavier de Maistre (harp)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

Sir Simon Rattle has a longstanding affection for Haydn. This is the third time that I have heard him conduct Haydn’s eighty-eighth symphony, having done so once before with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and also last summer with the Berlin Philharmonic. Rattle has a tendency to micro-manage certain aspects of the work, which some may find irritating, but I do not mind too much, given that he also manages to project a sense of the whole. It helps, of course, to have the Vienna Philharmonic as one’s orchestra. I first heard this symphony in that orchestra’s recording with Karl Böhm, a recording I still treasure, but one would not expect Rattle to sound quite like that – and he does not. I am pleased to report that the orchestra still sounds recognisably itself. Smaller in size (strings, the orchestral sound might not have been so luxurious, but nor was it thin. Eminently cultivated it remained and with a variety of string articulation which, at the very least, rivals Rattle’s Berlin orchestra. The first movement set the scene for the rest of the symphony: full of life and with an infectious sense of fun. In the Largo, the Viennese oboe sounded almost as of old and the sheer grace of the violins’ filigree was remarkable. I very much liked the way that tonal contrasts – including dynamics, but not restricted thereto – mirrored the movement’s harmonic contours. The end of the movement seemed rather casual, almost throwaway, but otherwise this was a fine account. As is now fashionable, the minuet was taken one to a bar; unlike some minuets, this can take such treatment, even if I hanker after something more stately. It had swing and was always stylish. Rattle clarified the part-writing, allowing the all-important ’cello line to shine through, thereby propelling the harmonic momentum. The trio was wonderfully rustic, perhaps a little more ‘eastern’ in tone – and not at all inappropriately – than Rattle’s Aix performance with the BPO; the leader’s solo was straightforwardly excellent. We then heard a very quick finale. At first, I thought, ‘if you can, why not?’ but eventually found it a little fatiguing; was the very end just a little too much of a dash? Likewise, keen dynamic shading is often to be savoured, but sometimes it seemed on display here for its own sake. Despite my reservations concerning the final movement, this remained an impressive performance.

Then came Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. An announcement before the concert had signalled that Magdalena Kožená was unwell. This may explain her rather mixed fortunes in this performance; it is difficult to tell in such circumstances. My suspicion is that her voice may not be ideal for this music, intelligent musician though she undoubtedly is. Rattle seemed happy to follow her, whilst making a great deal, though never too much, of the orchestral part, for instance in the febrile opening to ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ It set the scene for a splendidly malevolent reading, seemingly presaging the music of the Second Viennese School, although that quality owed more to the orchestra than to the soloist. There were nice touches from both artists in collaboration, such as the slowing for the words, ‘Perlen klar,’ in ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’. The dark orchestral solos in ‘Um Mitternacht’ were all the more effective for their lack of exaggeration. However, it seemed to me that the song would have benefited from a deeper, more contralto-like voice, and I did not care for the histrionics of the second stanza. Kožená’s diction was rather indistinct in ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!’ The orchestral solos, however, were ravishing; special mention must go to the solo violin, viola, flute, oboe, and horn. Further magic was to be heard from the celesta. Fortunately, diction improved dramatically for ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’, although I was not convinced that the vocal line really sounded ‘lived in’. Rattle imparted an admirable sense of something inchoate stirring to the orchestral introduction and the orchestra once again sounded exquisite, especially the leader’s solos. Kožená’s reading appeared to gain new depth in the final stanza, which proved to be deeply moving, followed by a heart-stopping stillness to the final orchestral bars.

It had originally been intended that Kožená would sing three versions of Susanna’s aria from Le nozze di Figaro. On account of her illness, she quite reasonably decided to concentrate upon the Mahler songs and one of the Mozart arias, which had been reconstructed by Sir Charles Mackerras. Here she seemed much more at home, which added to my doubts as to whether Mahler was really for her. She sang with style and animation, adroitly accompanied by Rattle and the orchestra. I could understand why Mozart gave up on this aria, though; it is too redolent of the world of opera seria. Perhaps the Countess might have sung it but hardly Susanna.

Before this, the VPO’s principal harpist, Xavier de Maistre, had stepped in as substitute, saving the day with a marvellous reading of Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane. Rattle has often excelled in French repertoire and so again it proved here; soloist, orchestra, and conductor seemed utterly at ease in what must have been something of an impromptu performance. The music sounded like an invitation and indeed admission to a magical kingdom, both dances seductive in their different and all-too-similar ways. For Debussy, any distinction between sacred and profane is unlikely to hold for long. De Maistre proved effortlessly evocative, likewise the Vienna strings. This kingdom was akin to one in which Pelléas had lived – and ruled, as evinced by the modal harmonies of triumph at the close. This being Debussy, however, there remained a rightful sense of ambiguity.

Finally, we heard Mozart’s great G minor symphony. I am sorry to say that this performance did not convince me at all. The Vienna Philharmonic can doubtless play this music in its sleep. Rattle would therefore have been right to guard against complacency but the hyperactivity of this rendition was maddening. The micro-management that had often worked – sometimes surprisingly – in Haydn sounded completely out of place in Mozart, not least since the sense of line that had always endured in the former did not stand a chance on this occasion. From the outset, the first movement sounded cultured rather than tragic and this did not change. Irritating dynamic exaggerations were taken too far – and then further still. The modulations at the beginning of the development section gave a good sense of queasy disorientation. Thereafter, however, the music was vehement but still not tragic. ‘Period’ mannerisms were sometimes applied, giving an impression of the world’s least ‘authentic’ orchestra being asked to play with one hand tied behind its back. Matters improved in the recapitulation, with a splendid transformation of tone colour for the brief false dawn of the major mode. But it was all too late and was followed by a hopelessly mannered coda. The Andante was taken so breathlessly that I had a sense of something approaching enforced cheerfulness. Perhaps this is how Rattle hears the music; I cannot imagine why. I longed for a relaxation of the basic, all too metronomic pulse, but it was not to be. The minuet once again evinced vigour without tragedy; it needs to be taken with greater dignity. Here, the lighter passages sounded uncomfortably close to Mendelssohnian fairy music, although the horns were to die for. The opening of the finale appeared to herald something better, even if it remained excitable rather than devastating. Inclusion of clarinets paid off handsomely when it came to the ravishing Harmoniemusik of the second subject. The grand rhetoric that announced the development section rang false, however, given the aforementioned lack of tragedy, as did the all-too-theatrical Luftpause at its close.

One might have seized upon certain ideas in this account and approved of them; yet, without a greater sense of the whole, what Furtwängler called Fernhören, it could not but remain less than the sum of its parts. Although more ingratiating, Rattle’s Mozart sounded like something akin to Harnoncourt-lite. It was a pity that this, rather than his Haydn, concluded the concert.