Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Prom 69: Abboud Ashkar/Gewandhaus/Chailly - Mendelssohn and Mahler, 7 September 2009

Royal Albert Hall

Mendelssohn – Piano concerto no.1 in G minor, op.25
Mahler (ed. Cooke) – Symphony no.10

Saleem Abboud Ashkar (piano)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly (conductor)

Judging by the warmth and sheer volume of the applause this concert received, most of the audience reacted a great deal more ecstatically than I did. At least the end of the concert proved a valuable opportunity for a minority menace to do something other than cough, talk, or, in some cases, sound their electronic equipment. Small mercies and all that...

The first Mendelssohn concerto was performed extremely well by Saleem Abboud Ashkar. I first heard him in 2006, in the Mozart concerto for two pianos, with the Vienna Philharmonic no less, under Riccardo Muti; reacquaintance found Abboud Ashkar equally impressive. Possessed of a pearly tone, not unlike Murray Perahia, he imparted a Mozartian beauty to the piano part, also hinting at Schumann and Brahms in the opposite chronological direction. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly played well enough and, in the case of the woodwind, quite magically at times, though the sheer ease in this idiom with which the orchestra played under Kurt Masur and often Herbert Blomstedt did not seem so readily apparent here. Some of Chailly’s direction in the first movement was hard-driven, though he proved able to relax on occasion. Yet I am afraid I could not bring myself to be wildly excited about the work itself. It has its moments and, in the slow movement, rather more than that. But hearing Abboud Ashkar made me wish I were hearing him in Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, or Brahms. Even those passages that sound closer to the inspired magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream throw into relief what is missing elsewhere. Prettiness need not always be disdained but there seems to me quite a lot of note-spinning in this piece: pleasant enough, and more substantial than anything by the briefly and incomprehensibly fashionable Hummel, but little more than that. Perhaps one of the perverse advantages of intensive anniversary coverage is to make one realise the gulf, at least in many cases, between a composer’s good and great works on the one hand and, on the other, the rest. If, on the other hand, we had been treated to more Haydn...

Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, as edited by Deryck Cooke – I realise that the situation is far less straightforward than that, but sometimes shorthand is helpful – was, I think, the second live performance of a Mahler symphony I ever heard. That performance, from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Mark Wigglesworth, was also the second live Prom I attended. Sometimes one romanticises early experiences. However, not only can I say that that performance knocked me for six at the time; I can also report that listening to a BBC recording thereafter has barely dimmed my enthusiasm. The Welsh orchestra is perhaps not the most refulgent in tone and lacks the pedigree of the Leipzig band – though is the Leipzig pedigree right for Mahler? – but Wigglesworth’s direction is clear, dramatic, and makes an extremely strong case for Cooke’s edition/completion/call-it-what-you-will. I was considerably less convinced by this performance, which moreover made me harbour greater doubts than I have previously entertained concerning the edition. In theory, I suppose that could mean a good performance revealing shortcomings – consider, for instance, Boulez and his reservations concerning Schoenberg – but I do not think that was primarily the case here. Anyway, a performer would usually, with a few celebrated exceptions, consider himself to be counsel for the defence.

First off, this seemed a very lengthy account. Whether that were the case in reality, I have no idea, since, for better or worse, I am not one of those listeners prone to take timings. I am certainly no foe of broad, expansive performances in any repertoire; but that is a different matter from sounding as though it might never end, which the opening Adagio came very close to doing. Part of the problem seemed to be Chailly’s penchant for excessive underlining of the closing both of phrases and paragraphs. The caesura can be an integral part of Mahler’s style and, in the right hands, this can be accomplished without disruption to the longer line. Here, however, there was a strange, indeed paradoxical combination of smoothness and yet stopping and starting. By contrast, a performance last year from Vladimir Jurowski of the Adagio alone had certainly been expansive and might well have lasted for longer than this, but so intensely dramatic had the music-making been, so seamless had the musical golden thread proved, that I had merely regretted that it could not go on for longer.

Another problem I had was the sound of the orchestra, or rather of the strings, which simply did not sound right for Mahler. Perhaps it is no coincidence that I greatly admired a Brahms Fourth Symphony from Chailly and this orchestra at the Proms a couple of years ago, for often this is what it reminded me of. I missed Viennese sweetness or at least a convincing substitute. The darkness did not sound like the right sort, or at least a right sort, of darkness. Somehow Daniel Barenboim managed to accomplish a similar trick with the Staatskapelle Berlin in 2007 with the Seventh Symphony. I still do not quite know how, but his achievement would still seem to very much an exception – and it did not work during the Fifth. I should probably mention too that the Berlin strings were a good couple of degrees richer in tone than their Leipzig counterparts. Or perhaps it was the auld enemy of the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustic. Barenboim, after all, had the Philharmonie...

Another thing missing for me was the malevolent darkness, as opposed to the darkness of string sound, in the first scherzo. However, I should note that David Matthews, in his truly excellent programme note – quite a change from a number of Proms contributions this year – described Mahler as not having ‘written a scherzo so free from malice since the Fifth Symphony’. Overt references aside, my difficulty was that this sounded all too much like the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony – and that, I should contend, is far from untroubled. More worryingly, textures, especially during the scherzi, sometimes sounded as if something were missing. Of course, in a very real sense, something is – but unless this were intended as a critique of Cooke and the Matthews brothers, that is perhaps not something of which one should really be aware. On the other hand, there was some truly extraordinary woodwind playing, which I noticed with something bordering upon amazement in each movement. The alternation of icy, Webern-like purity and pastoral warmth in the Purgatorio was utterly convincing. Indeed, it set me thinking that this is precisely what Purgatory should be like: invigorating purification, just like Webern. The three clarinets in the final movement once again sounded spot on, evoking both Mozartian Harmoniemusik and the Berg of the Violin Concerto’s chorale. This movement and the Purgatorio seemed to me the strongest – and I should certainly recall the superlative percussion contribution with which the orchestra groped towards its opening.

I have deliberately written very much in the first person, since I have a sense that much of this was about my reaction, not just in the sense that others clearly reacted very differently, but also that this concerns differently held approaches to and understandings of Mahler. When the music sounded on the threshold of the Second Viennese School, especially Webern, I was most captivated, but for long stretches it seemed to me not merely ‘late Romantic’, but ‘late Romantic’ in a not entirely appropriate way. With Barenboim, a surprising relation to Brahms had worked in the Seventh Symphony, even if it might rarely be suggested by the score in itself. Whilst there was much to appreciate here, I remained unconvinced by the interpretation as a whole, except in the rather troubling – but perhaps necessary? – sense of the doubts elicited concerning the edition. I shall now perhaps look again at some of the competing completions, which would doubtless be no bad thing.