Thursday 13 December 2012

Rotterdam PO/Nézet-Séguin - Beethoven and Mahler, 12 December 2012

Goldener Saal, Musikverein, Vienna

Beethoven – Symphony no.2 in D major, op.36
Mahler – Symphony no.4

Kate Royal (soprano)
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)
12.12.12: some of us thought of it as International Dodecaphonic Day. Still, so far as I could ascertain, and despite my privileged position of working for a fortnight at the Arnold Schönberg Center, I could not discover any music by Schoenberg – or, for that matter, by either other member of the Viennese Holy Trinity – being performed in Vienna. Mahler, then, was as close as one might come, though alas he was not served especially well in this performance of his Fourth Symphony.

First, however, and rather to my surprise, came rather a good performance of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. Having visited Heiligenstadt on Saturday evening, it seemed quite fitting to hear a work written at the time of Beethoven’s celebrated Testament, even if the symphony bears little obvious sign of the torment the composer voiced in that heart-rending cry. In this performance, from the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, both the introduction and the main body of the first movement were taken at a relatively swift pace, yet sounded proportionate to each other; as Wagner long ago pointed out, such proportions are far more important than absolute tempi. The transition between both sections convinced, not least on account of that clear relation between the two. Strings and woodwind proved nicely responsive to each other. And the music sounded with a sense of fun: a young man’s Beethoven, but none the worse for that. Bar an unfortunate horn fluff in the recapitulation, there was little one could reasonably fault here. The slow movement again flowed convincingly, with winning echoes of Haydn not only in the string dialogue but also in the darker hued passages. (Heiligenstadt? Perhaps?) Occasionally the strings would have benefited from less parsimony with respect to vibrato, but that was not a problem to be exaggerated. If one is going to push hard, it is probably better to do so in the scherzo than elsewhere; certainly Nézet-Séguin’s slight relaxation for the trio made its point. The hall at any rate took off some of the edge, and line was well maintained. Beethoven in Haydnesque mode was again a strong characteristic of the finale, articulated with style, the Rotterdam cellos especially gorgeous. A slightly slower tempo might have heightened the humour, but there was much to enjoy. This was not profound Beethoven after Klemperer or Furtwängler – today, Colin Davis or Barenboim – but that may well come; there was a lovely sheen to the performance and much of the music understanding was already in place. In the manner of those irritating Amazon comparisons, ‘If you like Karajan’s Beethoven, you would probably have liked this.’

After the swift tempi of the Beethoven, I was somewhat taken aback by the slow pace of the opening bars to the first movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. It settled down soon enough – or rather, I thought it had, for the abiding problem of this performance was Nézet-Séguin’s apparent unwillingness to convey a sense of an underlying pulse. Tempo fluctuations were extreme, especially in terms of slowing down, at one point almost grinding to a halt. The moment at which the solo violin entered came like a shot in the arm. If the performance livened up after that, however, the damage had been done, and the recapitulation suffered similarly, though to a lesser extent. One could enjoy the somewhat rambunctious woodwind, but Mahler does not need to be milked; nor does he take well to it. The second movement offered a not dissimilar experience. There is of course nothing wrong with tempo fluctuations – think of Mengelberg! – but one still needs a sense of basic pulse. The solo violin skirted dangerous close at times to the merely unpleasant; edge is good, but by definition, it should not be de trop, and scordatura should not be taken as an excuse for questionable intonation. Here and elsewhere, I missed a more characterful, deeply resonant string section.

The resultant lack of harmonic grounding was, however, successfully combated in the slow movement: much superior in every respect. (Odd, that, given that it is arguably the most difficult of the four movements to bring off.) There was a sense of scale, of proportion, here; line, whilst not always perfectly maintained, was much more in evidence. The performance showed that variation of tempo is perfectly possible, indeed often highly desirable, so long as a basic pulse has been established. Climaxes can then tell as they should – and they did. The orchestra and Nézet-Séguin were in lively form for the finale: sometimes too much so, the woodwind in particular proving shrill at times, but at least there was character to their performance. That was more than one could say for the lacklustre Kate Royal – even if one had been able to discern more than one word in five of what she sang. This was neither a child’s sense of heaven, nor something more knowing and sophisticated; it was simply inadequate. (Royal’s poor diction has been a characteristic of every performance of hers I have heard; whatever her strengths may be, they certainly do not lie in Lieder-singing.) However, there was a fine sense of orchestral culmination or arrival at the close, Mahler’s progressive tonality vindicated with love.