Friday, 8 May 2009

Znaider/LSO/Gergiev - Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Rachmaninov, 7 May 2009

Barbican Hall

Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
Schoenberg – Violin Concerto, op.36
Rachmaninov – Symphonic Dances, op.45

Nikolaj Znaider (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

The idea behind this programme was interesting: an exploration of three works written by their composers whilst in exile, part of the broader ‘Emigré’ theme for a number of this season’s London Symphony Orchestra concerts. However, in practice, it did not really seem that the works either had much in common or a productive tension. Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements is strong enough to precede the Schoenberg violin concerto, although I suspect that the former might have seemed anti-climatic had it followed. Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances sounded hopelessly out of place and frankly inferior when heard in the second half, even though it was here that the best orchestral performance was to be found.

The opening of the Stravinsky ‘symphony’ – I find it difficult to discern what, other than mischief, he meant by entitling it so – was arresting indeed, the attack of the LSO precise, vigorous, and invigorating. How the orchestra manages to follow Valery Gergiev’s beat, I have no idea, but it does. The woodwind section was delightfully – or should that be repellently? – pugnacious, with the piano part expertly dispatched by John Alley. The passages that come closer to proto-Dumbarton Oaks came off a little less well, with a little too much neo-Tchaikovskian sweetness, likewise certain sections of the slow movement. I should not wish to exaggerate, but the tension slackened, where all should remain rigid and impervious. The con moto finale again sounded splendid, the fugal passage utterly removed from Bachian example – just as it should be. Those who wish to find antecedents for post-war ‘sewing machine’ Baroque may do so here, but there is a dramatic, polemic point being made. Stravinsky, with typical cleverness, gave programmatic explanations before stating ‘the Symphony is not programmatic’. Booklet annotator David Nice described the composer as ‘disingenuous’, but the reality is more interesting than that. Schoenberg wrote of Œdipus Rex: ‘all [is] negative: unusual theatre, unusual resolution of the action, unusual vocal writing, ... [etc.] without being anything in particular.’ That is unfair and untrue, but it partially characterises Stravinskian neo-classicism, perhaps more so here than in the opera-oratorio. On the other hand, one might say that the Austrian composer is utterly wrong; far from not ‘being anything in particular’, Stravinsky’s music is declining to become, certainly in a symphonic sense, in order simply to be. At its best, this performance gave a good impression of the conundrums Stravinsky presents; sharper definition in the chugging ‘neo-Baroque’ passages might have made this a very special account.

It was, though, for Schoenberg’s violin concerto that I had made my journey – and I was not disappointed. This is a work that still acts, even more so than many others of the composer, to put off audiences; quite a few left – disgracefully – during the performance. I am not being disingenuous when I say that I do not understand why; of course I can hazard a few suggestions, but a fine performance, such as this was, ought to have made converts. Sadly, many in the audience appeared not even to be listening. My reservations concerned Gergiev and to a lesser extent the LSO. The conductor was attentive to the score, perhaps a little too much so, since he appeared, if not quite to be sight-reading, then hardly to have it in his head. He could have encouraged a greater dynamic and colouristic range from the orchestra, though I have heard Schoenberg sound greyer. (In this respect, as in so many others, Schoenberg is like Brahms. What might seem dull is only so in the way that an unimaginative person might miss the array of colours and the teeming life in a garden pond, water lilies and all.) What Gergiev did impart, which was of great value, was a strong rhythmic profile to all three movements, to which Nikolaj Znaider was well able to respond; indeed, one could see as well as hear him doing so. The percussion section of the LSO was given great opportunity to shine, reminding me of Schoenberg’s Bach orchestrations and the Variations for Orchestra, op.31. But this was really Znaider’s show. Many have spoken highly, even ecstatically, of Hilary Hahn’s recent recording; I have not heard it, but cannot imagine that her reading could have been better than Znaider’s. (I can well imagine, however, that Esa-Pekka Salonen might have been more closely attuned than Gergiev to the demands of the score.) There could be no doubt as to the cruel technical demands placed upon the soloist, but they were all surmounted, not just with musical meaning – although that is achievement enough – but with seductive tone, even Romantic ardour. The third movement cadenza, here extremely well ‘accompanied’, had to be heard to be believed. And then it remained unbelievable. This was an excellent performance and, immediately it was over, I wanted to hear it again, to take in more of what I had heard, but it would be invaluable to hear Znaider with another conductor. Perhaps Boulez? Or Barenboim?

It is not entirely Rachmaninov’s fault that, after this, even an expert account of his Symphonic Dances would sound conventional – and prolix. Gergiev clearly relishes the score, as does the orchestra. This is, after all, André Previn’s old stomping ground. I was unsure about the principal tempo for the first movement. Admittedly, it is marked Non allegro, which is clearly intended as a warning, but the dances sounded rather galumphing. It was probably at least as much a matter of stressing too many beats as of tempo as such, but the effect was to make one wonder whether the fault lay in the latter. The waltz fantasy of the second movement was nicely evocative of Berlioz (the second movement of the Symphonie fantastique). Great virtuosity was unleashed in the final movement; I doubt whether any orchestra could do better. Yet it sounded distended; what Andrew Huth, in his programme note, described as ‘virtually a life-against-death struggle’ came uncomfortably close to bringing death by attrition: ‘just one more time...’. After the extraordinary achievement heard in Schoenberg’s writing, Rachmaninov began to sound false. I do not think that he is, but the air of this planet, let alone planet Hollywood, seems rather stale once one has breathed that of another.