Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Pollini/LSO/Eötvös - Bach/Webern, Lachenmann, and Brahms, 20 June 2010

Barbican Hall

Bach-Webern – Fuga (Ricercata) a 6 voci, from Musical Offering, BWV 1079
Lachenmann – Double (Grido)
Brahms - Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor, op.15

Maurizio Pollini (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Peter Eötvös (conductor)

I have attended surprisingly few orchestral concerts recently, Moreover, it is more than five months since I had heard a London Symphony Orchestra concert – and that an opera, Elektra, in concert performance. A little break is as nothing, however, compared to the fortunes of Helmut Lachenmann on these shores. I was genuinely surprised to read in the programme that, save for performances from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, this was the first Lachenmann performance from a British symphony orchestra. We are not considering a minor figure, but someone comparable, say, to Hans Werner Henze or Wolfgang Rihm, and more consistent in focus than either. (That is not to make a claim of superiority or otherwise, but simply to make a distinction.) One may or may not like Lachenmann’s music, but, even if for curiosity’s sake, it deserves attention such as it regularly receives on the Continent. Many thanks then are due to the LSO, and to Maurizio Pollini, who commissioned this expansion of the original Grido, Lachenmann’s 2003 third string quartet, into its 2004 Double for forty-eight-strong string orchestra. Pollini’s was the guiding inspiration behind the programme; it is sobering to wonder how long we might have waited for a Lachenmann performance, had it not been for his advocacy, born in part from a shared friendship (and, in Lachenmann’s case, teacher-pupil relationship) with Luigi Nono.

From the very outset, this was an experience, both work and performance of great intensity: eruptions, swarming, whispering, the sounds in some initial respects not unlike Xenakis’s Pithoprakta or Nono’s Fragmente-Stille, an diotima, though with extended techniques and a formal strategy that are Lachenmann’s own. The extended techniques are just that: integrated extensions of a typical string sound, sometimes evocative of electronics, never superimposed, with the consequence that the work has more of a ‘traditional’ string orchestra sonority than one might have expected. Equally important – another sign of kinship with Nono, and beyond him Webern – is the defining quality of certain intervallic relationships. Such was the clarity with which the LSO under Peter Eötvös presented them that one would not have needed to define them in words – a major third, for instance – to perceive their import. Likewise the quarter-tone slides or indeed the progressive augmentation of pulse towards the end. There is a narrative, or one create a narrative, even if this is no sense programme music, and that greater sense of form, of progression, was readily perceptible to all. My immediate response was to wish to hear the work again.

Opening the concert we had heard Webern’s ravishing recomposition of the Ricercare from the Musical Offering: typically perceptive programming from Pollini, preparing us both for a mode of listening that pays due heed to intervallic relationships and for the contrapuntal complexities that so delight Bach, Webern, Lachenmann – and, as we should shortly hear, Brahms too. Eötvös ensured a wonderfully Romantic sound from the LSO, the strings expressively though never excessively laden with vibrato. Perhaps the falling away of phrases coincided a little too obviously with slowing of tempo, especially towards the end, but if a failing this were, it was a failing in the right direction, preferable to rigidity of tempo.

The second half saw Pollini join the orchestra for Brahms’s first piano concerto. His contribution was simply outstanding, likewise that of the LSO, the relative drawback being Eötvös’s side of the partnership, which rarely sounded quite on the same level. His contribution opened promisingly, the orchestral introduction sounding with great weight and commendable flexibility, but there were soon hints and more than that of a tendency to drive too hard. The first movement is marked Maestoso after all – and that summarises its character with Brahmsian succinctness. Flexibility would continue to intervene, creditable in itself, but sometimes with more convincing motivation than on other occasions. Pollini, meanwhile, revelled in the complexity of the piano writing, rendering every line expressively meaningful. On the technical side, his command of those fearsome double trills was awe inspiring, but musical meaning always remained paramount. Despite reservations concerning some of the conductor’s contribution, I was taken with the Hungarian lilt he imparted to some of the orchestral passages. The closing pages were most impressive from all, David Pyatt’s forlorn horn calls ushering in desolation from the piano, followed by defiance from all concerned.

Brahms’s presentiments of Ein deutsches Requiem were heard to full, moving effect in the slow movement, the relationship with Schoenbergian complexity and sonority in the piano writing properly dialectical, both inciting the other. The LSO woodwind gave a nice sense of Classical Harmoniemusik transformed: a world both vanished and yet present. The prescient instability of harmony and motivic development was powerfully voiced by the pianist, placing us somewhere between the St Matthew Passion and the Book of the Hanging Gardens. As Pollini was quoted in the programme notes:

The complexity in music makes the intensity. Think of the really complex pieces in the history of music – Bach’s Art of Fugue, the Prolation Mass by Ockeghem [which Webern knew so well], Beethoven’s Great Fugue, Boulez’s Second Sonata. There is enormous emotion in this music! The complexity does not go against the emotion, they go together in the most magical way…’

That, throughout this programme, was precisely what one heard. (May we hope for a Pollini Art of Fugue?)

Wisely, Pollini took the finale attacca, pre-empting all but a single cleverly-placed cough, though others and some shuffling followed. The piano outpouring was torrential, Bachian, playfully counterpoised with a Magyar sensibility that Eötvös once again winningly conveyed. Though the orchestral direction was not always at the same level as its execution, the string fugato was very well handled, casting a glance back (forward?) to Lachenmann, but also to Beethovenian purpose. Pollini’s voicing of the cadenza brought reminiscences of Mozart’s D minor concerto (and Beethoven’s cadenza thereto), and with enormous effort helped us finally to exorcise the driving daemon that possessed Brahms in this titanic work. As the horns led us into the playful conclusion, we knew that the battle had finally been won. Complexity had triumphed, rendered straightforward in its victory.