Friday, 6 November 2009

Shaham/LSO/Tilson Thomas - Berg and Schubert, 5 November 2009

Barbican Hall

Berg – Violin Concerto
Schubert – Symphony no.9 in C major, ‘Great’, D 944

Gil Shaham (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra (conductor)
Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)

First the good news: a good performance of Berg’s wonderful violin concerto, ‘To the memory of an angel’. The opening gripped, its kaleidoscopic opening fifths presenting a world of potentialities, a real sense of enquiring openness, even with a ‘classic’ work such as this – in short, penetrating to the very essence of serialism. With the entry of the superb London Symphony Orchestra woodwind, we were audibly in the sound world of Lulu. There were a few lapses in orchestral ensemble, but Michael Tilson Thomas ensured that the general direction was clear throughout. Gil Shaham imparted a refreshingly diabolical edge to his technically flawless rendition – without the Devil as comparator, how does one sense the angelic? – though later on, with his first statement of the chorale tune, I wondered whether something more chaste would have been appropriate. The woodwind, at any rate, sounded properly organ-like, and that section’s premonitions of the chorale earlier had once again helped in terms of long-term structural preparation. There was real fire to the opening of the third movement: a very Romantic conception from all concerned. Karen Vaughan’s spectacular harp playing deserves special mention. Returning to the final, Bach-infused movement, certain orchestral passages sounded a little uncertain, lacking Boulezian clarity, but the climaxes were well-handled, again in high Romantic fashion. There was a secular, even luscious halo of reconciliation at the close: not how one often hears these bars, but it seems a valid interpretative choice. Was, however, the distinctly lukewarm reception a reflection of concert audiences’ lack of adventure, even when it comes to the most ‘approachable’ member of the Second Viennese School’? The hall, it is worth noting, was rather less than full.

Then there came, I am sad to report, a truly dreadful performance of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major symphony. Rushed and mercilessly hard-driven, it was difficult to tell whether this was out of ‘authentic’ considerations – particularly out of place in a work never performed, and perhaps never likely to be performed, during Schubert’s lifetime – or a desire to turn the work into an orchestral showpiece. (There was enough preening from the conductor to – well, you can fill in the blanks...) Certainly the LSO played well, but that was the only saving grace. What was particularly strange was that, given Tilson Thomas’s recent project of programming Schubert and Berg together with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, of which I assume this London performance to be an offshoot, Schubert can rarely have sounded so utterly distant from Berg – or indeed from Schubert.

The introduction to the first movement was taken at a rather brisk Andante, especially for those of us accustomed to Furtwängler’s way with the score. I dare say for those unlucky enough to take their cue from Roger Norrington et al., it might have sounded more mainstream. What also announced itself straight away was a lack of ebb and flow, a rigidity inimical to the fluctuations Schubert’s score demands. The ensuing Allegro was hardly ma non troppo, the tempo once again proving rigid, with no discernable relaxation even for the second group. The brashness of the LSO’s brass, visibly encouraged by Tilson Thomas, stood light-years away from Schubertian grace, likewise the bizarre prominence of the kettledrums. As for the weird podium antics, at one point they seemed to shade into a spot of disco dancing: at least as embarrassing as Fiona Shaw’s recent pop-star entrance on stage at the National Theatre, allegedly as Mother Courage. After that, the Andante con moto certainly had movement, but sounded more like a march than anything else, an impression underlined by warlike trumpets later on. The woodwind section was often sprightly, though sometimes shrill, and there was a little consolation to be had from a wonderful oboe solo. Phrase, however, succeeded phrase, with little sense of shaping a greater whole, just an apparent anxiety to rush through as quickly as possible. There was also an unappealing fierceness to the string sound, utterly devoid of Germanic glow. Though fast, this movement seemed to go on forever. If only Sir Colin Davis had been conducting...

It was quite an achievement to make the scherzo sound too fast, but achievement it was, less a matter of speed as such, as of breathlessness: no Austrian air to breathe here. The LSO just about kept up and played very well, but to what end? At the opening of the trio, Tilson Thomas broke his baton, perhaps not a bad metaphor for the performance as a whole. This movement actually possessed a little more grace, perhaps because the orchestra had been able to regain some of the initiative during the interruption to his beat. The finale worked comparatively well, with a tempo that made much more sense, though, with a few blatantly grandstanding exceptions, it remained unyielding. But it was all too late. When the conductor, on more than one occasion, turned almost so far as to conduct the audience – it certainly was not directed to the orchestra – this was only the most flagrant of such unnecessary displays. How utterly different from the undemonstrative success of Karl Böhm in this score! I was put in mind of a senior academic who, when presiding at dinner, would regale the assembled company with yet another ‘funny story’, jabbing his finger from time to time at individuals, in order to ask, to their incredulity, ‘Now you, are you listening?’ One learned to avoid evenings when he would be in the chair. I shall do likewise with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Schubert.