Saturday 19 December 2009

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Inkinen - Messiaen, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, 17 December 2009

Großer Saal, Gewandhaus, Leipzig

Messiaen – Un sourire
Mozart – Symphony no.29 in A major, KV 201
Tchaikovsky – Symphony no.4 in F minor, op.36

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

Pietari Inkinen, not yet thirty, is making quite a name for himself. Music director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra since 2007, he has also acted as guest conductor with a host of other orchestras, including the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the DSO Berlin, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Now it was the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra’s turn.

To open with Messiaen, even Messiaen in miniature, was a bold stroke. Un sourire is one of Messiaen’s latest works, written at the request of Marek Janowski, for the Mozart anniversary of 1991. It is so called because Messiaen believed, not without reason, that, whatever hardships Mozart suffered, he continued to smile. There could be no doubt, from the opening chord, as to the identity of the composer; indeed, that chord sounded as if it might have been taken from L’Ascension, at the opposite end of Messiaen’s career. Languorous woodwind solos and serene string chords – without double basses – completed the picture, the LGO sometimes sounding very close to Debussy. Two horns prepare the way for a barrage of bird song – yes, again – in which stunning percussion playing made its mark. Thereafter, those two blocks, slow and manic, alternate in typical Messiaenesque fashion. It was a great pity that much of the second half of the work was vitiated by a barrage of coughing. Far less evident during the pieces that followed, that suggested that the audience was displaying philistine impatience.

Even though, beyond the smallish size of the orchestra, Un sourire seems to have little actually in common with Mozart, it obviously made sense to continue with a work by its inspiration. The choice of Mozart’s twenty-ninth symphony was imaginative; indeed, I am not sure I have heard it in concert before. I worried when I heard the fast initial tempo Inkinen adopted for the first movement, but he never pushed the music too hard. (Those of us used to Karl Böhm would just have to adapt to something else.) This was cultivated Mozart-playing, though it could sometimes prove a little self-conscious in its articulation. Still, it wore ‘a smile’ on its face. If the string tone (proportions lacked the creaminess of the Vienna Philharmonic, there was nothing ‘authenticke’ to it either. The second movement was quick for an Andante, at least on ‘traditional’ terms. However, it benefited from a natural flow, never rushed. There were occasions here, as elsewhere, when delicacy won out a little too easily – a bit much of the Meissen china – but that is certainly preferable to the crudities in vogue in certain quarters. The horns provided some truly exquisite playing, as did the oboes, except for the end, when they suddenly sounded inappropriately – indeed, bizarrely – loud. A brisk but stylish minuet gave great pleasure. Sterner moments were given their due, proving more robust than might have been expected from the previous two movements. The trio suffered somewhat from self-conscious phrasing; it might have sung more, but again, when one considers the indignities to which Mozart is nowadays so often subjected, one can be forgiving. However, it did sound a little dull, as was brought home by the winning swagger of the minuet’s return. The finale was full of life, providing much to ‘smile’ about, the vigorous passages coming off especially well. Whooping horns were a joy.

This, then, was rather a good performance of an oft-neglected Mozart symphony. I suspect that more rehearsal time had been devoted to the work that was to follow. Had that not been the case, the Mozart might have sounded a little more ‘lived in’; as it stood, it remained impressive. Perhaps these are no more than straws in the wind, but what with this and Daniel Harding’s fine Jupiter Symphony performance at the conclusion of this year’s Salzburg Mozartwoche, I wonder whether young conductors are wearying of the exhibitionistic antics of many of their ‘senior’ colleagues in Classical repertoire. One can only hope so, for, Sir Colin Davis and a few others notwithstanding, it has been a long night.

Inkinen’s account of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth had some fine moments, but proved mixed when considered as a whole. Those horns, who had shone in the Mozart, had ample opportunity from the outset to do so again here, which they took, along with their other brass colleagues and the LGO’s splendid timpanist. Fate was announced, or rather bludgeoned into one’s consciousness. Indeed, every section of the orchestra was on excellent form, some wonderfully rich string playing a case in point. Direction in this first movement, though, was not always as clear as it might have been; tempo changes sometimes lacked the obvious motivation they require, though there was nothing glaring in that respect. The development section also tended somewhat towards the sectional. However, the orchestral playing at the final climax was tremendously impressive, if not so ‘earned’ as it might have been in a more rigorous reading. (Klemperer’s stunning recording of the Fifth Symphony has always seemed to me a fine model.) An excellent oboe soloist and songful cellos made for an idiomatically ‘Russian’-sounding slow movement, which proved more cohesive than its predecessor. The rest of the woodwind sounded glorious too. By its very nature, the pizzicato playing in the scherzo requires a tour de force, which it received here, complemented by characterful woodwind contributions, ‘characteristic’ in a balletic sense. The brass were equally fine – and equally full of character. Those two ‘worlds’ came together in exemplary fashion at the end; this movement was really very fine. Great showmanship announced the finale, which is as it should be: there is no point in reticence here. However, there might have been advantage in taking less than a hell-for-leather speed, for the movement ended up sounding hard-driven. There was magnificent playing from every section of the LGO and Inkinen can certainly get an orchestra to do what he wants. Nevertheless, in the outer movements of this symphony, I was sometimes less sure of what that actually meant.