Tuesday 29 October 2013

Wozzeck: Karl Böhm's Bergian reminiscences

Wozzeck, to my mind the very greatest opera of the twentieth century, opens at Covent Garden on Thursday. Here Karl Böhm, a great champion and interpreter, rarely matched and most likely never surpassed, discusses his first encounters with the work and with Berg himself:

Sunday 27 October 2013

Tharaud/LPO/Nézet-Séguin - Poulenc and Prokofiev, 23 October 2013

Royal Festival Hall

Poulenc – Piano Concerto
Prokofiev – Symphony no.7 in C-sharp minor, op.131
Poulenc – Stabat mater

Alexandre Tharaud (piano)
Kate Royal (soprano)
London Philharmonic Choir
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)
None of these works is over-exposed in the concert hall, though Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony perhaps comes closer to regular performance. It was only really in Poulenc’s Stabat mater, however, that the performance made a relatively strong case for the work in question.

Poulenc’s Piano Concerto is certainly a work that needs an excellent case to be made for it. Here it sounded disjointed and often somewhat lacklustre; indeed, there was an air, whether accurate or otherwise, of under-rehearsal to the performance that emerged. Whilst one could sense an attempt at ‘authentic’ orchestral sonority – whether one really wants that somewhat watery early-twentieth century string sound is another matter – the first movement lacked a sense of overall sweep and was also disfigured by too many orchestral fluffs. Balances were often peculiar too, for no apparent reason. Perhaps an understandable desire on Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s part to avoid sentimentalism had shaded too far into brusqueness. Alexandre Tharaud’s somewhat self-effacing account of the piano part imparted a fluency not always present elsewhere. Certain passages sounded comfortingly Ravel-like, though this is hardly a work to place in such exalted company. The slow movement was more settled: partly a matter of the material, but also of the performance itself. Tharaud offered some gorgeous piano tone to float above the orchestral cushion, but again the LPO’s performance was far from flawless. Quite what the musical connections are between the contrasting material here continues to elude me, but that is either my fault or the composer’s. The succession of melodies was cherished in the finale, probably the strongest section of the performance, and the ending proved splendidly deadpan.

Prokofiev’s symphony opened in gravely beautiful fashion, though I could not help but wonder whether Nézet-Séguin’s first-movement tempo was a little fast for Moderato. The LPO seemed more at ease, though there remained cases of tentative playing. An ‘heroic’ idiom familiar from the Fifth Symphony still registered, albeit, rightly so, in more ambivalent fashion, the disquiet of the toyshop equally apparent. Waltz rhythms proved nicely balletic in the scherzo. Unfortunately, the performance seemed rather to lose its way, continuity being lost. Nézet-Séguin made partial amends with a relatively frenzied orchestral climax; the problem remained, however, that it was not quite clear where it had come from. The slow movement, though, was handled in loving fashion, its songfulness imbued with a sense of drama that harked back to its origins in incidental music for Eugene Onegin. A ghost from the Fifth Symphony again haunted the finale, as did reminiscences of Prokofiev’s ballet writing, Nézet-Séguin opted for the original ending, returning us to the mood of the opening, albeit somewhat darkened. Even if the performance as a whole had not lived up to expectations, a properly unsettled mood was engendered at the close.

The London Philharmonic Choir did Poulenc’s Stabat mater proud. Indeed, one sensed that Nézet-Séguin’s roots in choral conducting generally lifted the level of performance. Though the choir brought out echoes of Fauré in the opening chorus, there was no mistaking the composer’s individual, if synthetic, voice. Stravinskian echoes (Œdipus Rex) resounded in the orchestra, yet the mood was overwhelmingly one of serenity. Nézet-Séguin highlighted the neo-Baroque dotted rhythms in ‘Fac ut portem’ to telling effect. Choral fury was heard in the ‘Cujus animam gementem,’ but some of the most touching moments were to be found in Poulenc’s a cappella writing, for instance in ‘O quam tristis’ and ‘Fac ut ardeat’. Some of the composer’s response to the text strikes me as peculiar, if not quite on the surreal level of Rossini’s; nevertheless, the performers responded in kind, even if that response necessarily jarred somewhat with the text. Kate Royal sang in an attractive-enough, generically ‘operatic’ fashion; alas, it was well-nigh impossible to discern all but the occasional word of what she sang. There was certainly an embarrassing contrast with the diction of the choir. It was a serious blemish, but ultimately there remained much to admire in the performance as a whole.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Greek, Music Theatre Wales, 22 October 2013

Linbury Studio Theatre
Gwion Thomas and Sally Silver as Eddy's parents
Images: Clive Barda

Eddy – Alastair Shelton-Smith/Michael McCarthy
Eddy’s Mum/Waitress/Sphinx – Sally Silver
Eddy’s Sister/Waitress who becomes Eddy’s Wife/Sphinx – Louise Winter
Eddy’s Dad/Café Manager/Chief of Police – Gwion Thomas

Michael McCarthy (director)
Simon Banham (designs)
Ace McCarron, Jon Turtle (lighting)
The Music Theatre Wales Ensemble
Michael Rafferty (conductor)

After the bitter disappointment of Anna Nicole, came this reminder – both sad and hopeful– that Mark-Anthony Turnage was once capable of writing urgent, exciting music theatre. Indeed, from this composer I have heard nothing finer, perhaps nothing to match, this, his first opera, to Steven Berkoff’s libretto after his own Oedipal play, Greek. Adverse circumstances notwithstanding, this performance and production from Music Theatre Wales offered everything one could reasonably hope for, and more. Marcus Farnsworth, who had been ailing on the first night, had awoken with no voice, to be replaced by an heroic combination of the flown-in-from-Berlin-that-afternoon Alastair Shelton-Smith to sing the part on stage and Michael McCarthy to act, to mime the sung passages, and to deliver the spoken text. If anything, the practice added to the feeling of alienation, social and theatrical, but it would have come to nothing without such committed performances. From the word go, or rather a somewhat bluer word than that, when McCarthy hastened toward the stage, scarily impersonating an irate member of the audience hurling abuse at the audience, he inhabited the role visually and gesturally. His own production frames the performance convincingly, offering a return into the audience as Eddy is rejected by his family, those who supposedly love him unable to stomach his desire to ‘climb back inside my mum’. Shelton-Smith’s assuredly protean yet deeply felt vocal performance fully deserved the rapturous reception it received from audience and fellow cast-members alike, and would have done so even if it had not been for the particular circumstances.

Sally Silver and Louise Winter as the Sphinx
But the other performances were equally assured. Sally Silver and Louise Winter proved as versatile in vocal as in acting terms, their combination as lesbian separatist sphinx being sleazy and savagely humorous in equal measure. Gwion Thomas was just as impressive in the other male roles, the sad would-be patriarch as much as the brutal police chief. The Music Theatre Wales Ensemble under Michael Rafferty played Turnage’s score as to the manner born: angry and soulful, biting and tender, urgent and yet offering oases for reflection. Whether called upon to play in conventional terms, to shout, to stamp, or even to strike a pose, there could be no gainsaying the level of artistry on offer from players and conductor alike.

McCarthy’s production places the work firmly in the tradition of music theatre – doubtless partly out of necessity, but, unlike in the opera, virtue certainly arises out of fate. Props are minimal but used to full effect, the cast in proper post-Brechtian fashion undertaking the stage business too. Video projections of key words, not least Berkoff’s inevitable ‘Motherfucker’, heightens both drama and alienation. But perhaps the principal virtue is that of allowing the anger of Berkoff and Turnage’s drama to unfold, within an intelligent yet far from attention-seeking frame. The transposition of the Oedipus myth to 1980s London now seems both of its time and yet relevant to ours. It works as a far more daring version of the original EastEnders might have done, yet with injection of magic realism. Both Berkoff’s ear for language – the ability to forge a stylised ‘vernacular’, which yet can occasionally shift into knowingly would-be Shakespearean poetry – and Turnage’s response and intensification, whether his pounding protest rhythms or the jazzy seduction of his beloved saxophone, work just as McCarthy’s staging does: they grip and yet they will also, if not always, distance. Above all, one continues to feel and indeed to reiterate the anger felt by outcasts in the brutal Britain of Margaret Thatcher. Incest offers not only its own story, but stands or can come to stand also for other forms of social and sexual exclusion. Hearing of the plague, one can think of it as Thatcherism and the ignorant, hypocritical right-wing populism that continues to infest political discourse, or one can turn it round and view it as the guardians of morality most certainly would have done at the time of the 1988 premiere, as the fruits of sexual ‘deviance’: the tragedy of HIV/AIDS.

That space to think, to interpret is not the least of the work’s virtues, fully realised in performance. Its musical lineage is distinguished; on this occasion, those coming to mind included Stravinsky, Andriessen, magical shards of Knussen, and, alongside the music theatre of the Manchester School, that of Henze too, especially the angry social protest of Natascha Ungeheuer. But it is its own work, now with its own performance tradition, of which Music Theatre Wales’s contribution is heartily to be welcomed.    

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Madama Butterfly, English National Opera, 21 October 2013

(sung in English)

Cio-Cio San – Mary Plazas
Suzuki – Pamela Helen Stephen
Pinkerton – Timothy Richards
Sharpless – George van Bergen
Goro – Alun Rhys-Jenkins
Prince Yamadori – Alexander Robin Baker
The Bonze –Mark Richardson
Yakuside – Philip Daggett
Imperial Commissioner – Paul Napier-Burrows
Official Registrar – Roger Begley
Mother – Natalie Herman
Aunt –Judith Douglas
Cousin – Morag Boyle
Kate Pinkerton – Catherine Young

Anthony Minghella (director)
Sarah Tipple (revival director)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Hang Feng (costumes)
Peter Mumford (lighting)
Blind Summit Theatre (puppetry)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Fitzpatrick)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Gianluca Marciano (conductor)

Many readers will doubtless already have seen the late Anthony Minghella’s Madam Butterfly, now revived by Sarah Tipple, whether at the Coliseum, at the Met, or even in Vilnius.  This, however, was my first viewing, and I found it rather impressive. There is any number of ways in which one might in performance respond to Puccini’s deeply problematical orientalism, though simply failing to do so and reproducing or rather vulgarising it is surely no longer an option, if ever it really were. Minghella’s staging, aided immensely by the rest of his collaborative team, offers a convincing blend of abstraction, stylisation, and moments through which more conventional, if highly disturbing, emotion, may flow like blood – or like the scarlet, silken banners unfurled by actors and dancers. The relative abstraction of Michael Levine’s versatile set designs focuses our attention upon the drama rather than irrelevant incidentals. In a relationship that partakes in contrast and complementarity, the ‘beauty’ – I affix inverted commas, since Western eyes will doubtless perceive such things rather differently from Japanese eyes, and in any case, no group sees everything in the same manner – of Hang Feng’s ‘Oriental’ costumes reminds us that there should be a degree of alienation as well as seduction and sympathy to our response. Whatever the sins in which this opera indulges – and in many respects, racist, sexist, etc., it seems to tick almost every box – that is of nothing when compared with a modern opera audience treating it in unquestioning fashion.  Ultimately, that remains our responsibility, but a production can help or hinder; this does the former. Even the fall of darkness and emergence of the stars at the end of the first act, ‘beautifully’ accomplished according to any understanding, both draws one in and holds one slightly distanced, in a sense thus making one all the more dangerously susceptible both to Puccini’s brazenly manipulative genius and to knowledge of that manipulation. If it would be exaggerated to compare him to Strauss in terms of sophistication, the effect and to a certain extent the technique are not entirely dissimilar either.

The lack of realism, or perhaps the theatricality that goes beyond realism, of Japanese puppetry makes a great impression in that sense too. On one level, it is a sensible theatrical solution to the problem of what to do with a small child. Yet to have Sorrow as a puppet, visibly manipulated by some of the mysterious, dark shrouded figures who intermittently populate the stage also heightens our sense of the clash between artificiality and a crude, manipulative, yet highly potent emotionalism that would collapse into mere sentimentality if any of us were not careful. To have those figures’ dance of death suggest during Cio-Cio San’s  suicide an outpouring of daemons – perhaps both hers and ours – furthers the ambiguity  we require as a defence to the undeniable, dangerous power of the score’s close.

At that point, conductor, Gianluca Marciano and the ENO Orchestra pull out all the stops – as of course does Puccini himself. There were times earlier on when it was difficult not to feel the lack of a more incisive musical mind at work in the pit; sometimes, the music floated along a little too amiably. Yet even when the performance is more that of a Kapellmeister than a great conductor, the niggling difficulties of the score – modernist, Wagnerian, orientalist – have a way of continuing to insinuate themselves.

The cast for the most part made the best of an unenviable job of singing Puccini in English. Timothy Richards’s Pinkerton was, alas, something of a blemish, though language was not here the problem. Rather, he lacked vocal or stage allure; one can believe up to an extent in an unprepossessing American officer relying upon the force of an occupying power to have his way, but it cannot be entirely that. (His pantomime encouragement of the audience to boo him at the end was, moreover, quite out of keeping with the sensibility of work and production.) Mary Plazas, despite a few shaky moments – perhaps most notably, her very first line, and then the first line of ‘Un bel di, vedremo’ – offered a sympathetic, highly involving performance in the title role. Pamela Helen Stephen’s Suzuki was warmly sympathetic too; one felt her protectiveness, her love, and indeed her intelligence. George van Bergen made for a tortured – in a good sense! – Sharpless, his humanity contrastingly strongly with Pinkerton’s cowardice. And though her role may be small, Catherine Young made as close to a three-dimensional impression of Kate Pinkerton as one has any right to expect: sensible, concerned, and in a sense as ‘other’ as the other wife she faced. Various of the other smaller roles were well taken, in a performance that benefited from a fine sense of ensemble.   

Monday 21 October 2013

Book review: KM Knittel, Seeing Mahler: Music and the Language of Antisemitism in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna

KM Knittel, Seeing Mahler: Music and the Language of Antisemitism in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (Ashgate: Farnham and Burlington, 2010), ISBN 9780754663720, pp. xiii + 201, £55. 

Die Muskete, 10 January 1907


Gustav Mahler’s time has come, the anniversary years 2010 and 2011 (150 years since his birth and 100 since his death) having intensified the ubiquity of his music. Orchestras and conductors treat it as a calling-card. Even Beethoven has been eclipsed as the concert hall’s favourite symphonist. Yet, not so long ago, things were very different. Mahler’s years in the doldrums have been exaggerated, especially by those anxious to claim that Leonard Bernstein’s direction of the New York Philharmonic catapulted Mahler into the spotlight, a dubious proposition even in the Western Hemisphere. Mahler had numerous earlier, influential advocates. Nevertheless, his music long faced ignorance and disdain. Ralph Vaughan Williams, for instance, opined: ‘Intimate acquaintance with the executive side of music made even [!] Mahler a very tolerable imitation of a composer.’ Why might this have been? Did anti-Semitism play a role?

A study of Mahler’s early critics should have much to offer here. As KM Knittel argues in her conclusion (p.168), ‘if there is even the slightest possibility that we have taken over a way of thinking about Mahler and his music from a culture that could not deal with his Jewishness … we owe it to ourselves to rethink what makes Mahler’s music unique, thought-provoking, and valuable.’ Such rethinking, alas, lies without her study. No matter: we can rethink for ourselves. The real problem with Knittel’s book, rather, is that it fails to make a cogent case for anti-Semitic coding of early Mahler criticism: oddly, given the endemic nature of anti-Semitism in Mahler’s Vienna and many of the attacks he suffered as Director of the Court Opera. Despite occasional disclaimers that texts may be read variously, the tunnel-vision of Knittel’s readings counter-productively renders one suspicious of reasonable interpretations in such a vein. She misses an open goal.

The first chapter proper opens promisingly, surveying artist Alfred Roller’s verbal portrait of Mahler. It is good to have Roller’s original German quoted in footnotes, though Knittel appears throughout to have used Norman Lebrecht’s existing translation rather than furnished her own. That may seem pedantic, but when dealing with the nuances of linguistic transmission, reference to words actually used will help. When interpretation commences, claims immediately become questionable. Roller’s ‘failure to address the obvious issue of circumcision inadvertently emphasises its association with castration’. Perhaps, but assertion replaces argument. Moreover, it is odd, in discussion of the body, to lack reference, explicit or implicit, to writers such as Foucault, Lacan, and Žižek. An oft-acknowledged progenitor, however, is Marc Weiner’s ‘brilliant’ (p.160) Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination. Weiner’s inability or disinclination, during discussion of Parsifal, to distinguish between circumcision and castration does not augur well.

Moving on to discussion of Mahler’s wife, Alma, it is doubtless revealing that she writes (p.41), ‘So much irritates me: his smell, the way he sings, the way he speaks,’ but failure to consider words such as ‘I don’t believe in him as a composer,’ as possessing weight of their own or other possible justifications almost renders one sceptical concerning anti-Semitism undoubtedly present. Alma’s descriptions are surely more interesting when ambiguity is permitted, indeed explored. That she decided to marry Gustav in order to ‘cure’ him of Jewishness is asserted (p.43) without a shred of evidence. In its absence, many will follow Mahler’s near-definitive biographer, Henry-Louis de La Grange, considering documented dedication of a performance of Die Zauberflöte to Alma and her mother’s attempted dissuasion to have played some role. Roller’s positive physical descriptions most likely betray (p.47) ‘his unconscious absorption of … cultural markers of difference’. Such is lost, however, in a morass of implausible assertions. Doubtless a considerable part of such work will have to remain highly speculative; it is not thereby invalidated. Consideration of alternatives might nevertheless prove fruitful.

The villain, bizarrely, is Wagner. Weiner et al. at least make him the villain of his own story. Here, echoing Joachim Köhler’s monocausal explanation of the Second World War (Wagners Hitler: Der Prophet und sein Vollstrecker), newspaper critics err on account of, or at least in sympathy with, Wagner’s Das Judent[h]um in der Musik [not ‘Music’, p.53], unhelpfully conflated by Knittel with his Oper und Drama, so that anything in the latter automatically betokens anti-Semitism. Wagner’s criticism of Berlioz’s ‘mechanical means’ of orchestration is read as anti-Semitic, though Berlioz was never thought to be Jewish and Francophobia seems a better candidate – as well, perish the thought, as misplaced cultural criticism. William Ashton Ellis’s outdated translation of Wagner is employed, so that we have no opportunity to compare Wagner’s actual words with the critics’.  Is Wagner, even if one takes the most hostile approach to him, the sole lens through which to view musical critics’ anti-Semitism? Unlikely, to put it mildly. And yet, we read (p.108): ‘The juxtaposition of surface versus depth, the implication that Mahler has nothing to say, and the emphasis on noise or novelty rather than music and ideas can all be traced to beliefs about the inferiority of Jewish music, as articulated by Richard Wagner.’ And so, without presenting any evidence that Max Vansca’s 1907 review of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony was indebted to Wagner or intended anti-Semitically – and both may well have been the case – why should we heed the forthright ‘moral of Vansca’s review …: Mahler will reveal himself eventually as a Jew – by writing banal or second-hand melodies’? Something more than bald assertion is required. On the rare occasion when we learn something a little more about a critic, Robert Hirschfeld, it is illuminating, though I remain unconvinced that Hirschfeld’s likening Mahler to George Bernard Shaw (p.135) in terms of technique and playing with irony reveals anti-Semitism. More needs to be said about other critics: background, influences, etc.

Racialist theories languish unexplored, Knittel near silent even concerning Vienna’s own leading anti-Semites. Georg Schönerer and Karl Lueger are merely name-checked, declining comparison of their anti-Semitism with the critics’. When claiming, ‘in a critical sense, anyone could be a Jew,’ Knittel neglects to invoke Lueger’s celebrated claim to decide who was a Jew. She does not mention even in passing the young Hitler’s fervent admiration of Mahler’s Wagner interpretation. Despite repeated please for contextualisation, anything not incriminating Wagner is excluded. Gustav Klimt is ignored. When dealing with cultural history and its politics, other arts, other discourses, will not only provide important material – no one would claim that music existed in a vacuum here – but also suggest what may or may not have been unusual about music. Perhaps that helps explain why strange claims abound, for example (p.49): ‘While Mahler’s Jewish background may seem unimportant now – or indeed, something to be purposely excluded from discussion…’. No evidence is given for unimportance or exclusion; in reality, the contrary would seem to be the case. Knittel then footnotes a few other studies on Mahler and anti-Semitism, enigmatically commenting, ‘I will not dwell on the limitations of the other studies’, before confusing ‘infamous’ and ‘notorious’.

What remains? An interesting selection of extracts from Viennese newspaper critics. An expanded edited collection of such criticism might have been more helpful than an argument that probably needed more time to be honed. We never approach the nub of why Mahler’s (partial) decision to write programme music was understood to indicate Jewishness, whereas undoubted resolutions to do so by Berlioz, Liszt, and Richard Strauss were not. Must there not have been something more to the matter, given that the genre’s foremost practitioners were certainly not Jewish? Knittel’s reading is not necessarily invalidated, yet complexities require consideration, not evasion. A chapter on Strauss criticism holds out promise, but its argument turns out to be: Mahler was Jewish and Strauss was not, therefore identical criticisms of Mahler and Strauss are and are not anti-Semitic. As for the claim that Strauss turned his back upon modernism because it was perceived as Jewish, it is arresting, but where is the evidence? One can imagine the contrary being claimed, that he was returning to a comfortable classicism akin to that of Mendelssohn. 

It is a tedious hallmark of reviews that they berate the writer for not having included something else. I nevertheless cannot help but wonder at the exclusion of discussions by composers such as Alexander Zemlinsky – Jewish, spurned by Alma – and Arnold Schoenberg, and musicologists such as Guido Adler and Heinrich Schenker. Stefan Zweig is dismissed (naïvely?): ‘it must be said, … a rather naïve and self-centred man’. Such figures would, despite their exceptionalism, have something to say about prejudices of ‘mere’ critics and reasons for hostility extending beyond or illuminating anti-Semitism.

Mahler’s time having come – he predicted to Alma that it would, when Strauss’s had ended – might even signal acceptance, indeed approbation, of ‘Jewish’ aspects to his music. Alternatively, even if they exist, that may have little connection to his present esteem. Our view may depend upon preference for Bernstein’s Mahler as agent of personal redemption or Pierre Boulez’s Mahler as modernist godfather.  We should not, however, decide upon the outcome before conducting the investigation.

Friday 18 October 2013

Royal Northern Sinfonia/Zehetmair: Mozart, 18 October 2013

Milton Court Concert Hall

Divertimento in D major, KV 136/125a
Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, KV 364/320d
Symphony no.39 in E-flat major, KV 543

Ruth Killius (viola)
Royal Northern Sinfonia
Thomas Zehetmair (conductor/violin)

A new chamber-size hall for London as part of the Guildhall-Barbican complex: Milton Court Concert Hall – which seems already to be abbreviated to Milton Court, though that strictly is the name of a building including a theatre, a studio theatre, rehearsal rooms, etc. – certainly showed its worth in this concert. The acoustic is bright, warm, and detailed. Now if only London could finally get its act together and build a decent large-scale hall… That, however sad and urgent the case, is, though, an argument for another day.

Today’s concern is an outstanding Mozart concert from the Royal Northern Sinfonia and Thomas Zehetmair. It opened with the first of Mozart’s so-called ‘Salzburg symphonies’, not actually reckoned as forming part of his listed symphonies, but rather a divertimento for strings. From the very outset, the first movement, and indeed the work as a whole, pulsated with life, Mozart seemingly as much in the bloodstream of this country’s only full-time chamber orchestra as of the Salzburg-born Zehetmair. Unfailingly stylish, apparently straightforward, this performance, impelled by a proper sense of formal dynamism, benefited from a clear sense of harmonic rhythm, the charm and musical sense of antiphonally-seated violins, and a lively sense of characterisation. Minor-mode excursions had a real sense of broaching new territory.  And with repeats taken, this divertimento seemed anything but slight. The slow movement was warm, graceful, again with a sense of ‘rightness’ to Zehetmair’s chosen tempo. Phrasing was again unobtrusive but telling: no ‘period’ traffic-calmer bumps here. At least as important, there was, even in a new City of London concert hall, a crucial sense of the magical outdoor serenade of a Salzburg evening. I was put in mind of Sandor Vegh’s work with the Camerata Academica Salzburg, and there can be little higher praise than that. The finale was alert, witty, fresh: full of the young Mozart’s joy to be alive, a joy already unmistakeably personal in style, whatever its antecedents. Mozart’s counterpoint was conveyed with loving sternness, his orchestral tricks – they ought to be Haydnesque, but they could only be Mozart’s – despatched with loving flair.

Mozart-Divertimento K136 by gpollen

If that divertimento is a sparkling, far from callow, early work, the Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola is a towering masterpiece. Zehetmair was joined by his wife and regular duo partner, Ruth Killius. Both turned towards and played with their respective sections in the opening ritornello. The Sinfonia’s wind proved just as warm, rounded, sparkling as its strings. Solo lines emerged from what had gone before as the soloists turned toward the audience. (Zehetmair would turn back to conduct when he was not playing.) There was a true experience of dialogue between all the players, not just the soloists. Though there was plenty of individual ‘character’ to the soloists’ performance, it seemed to be the character of the instruments and Mozart’s writing for them, rather than the product of externally applied – or mis-applied – ‘personality’. Oboes and horns were equally brimming with Mozartian magic. Yet this was certainly not prettified or manicured Mozart; beauty rather emerged through an eminently human performance. Might I find a cavil? If pushed, I suppose there was not much sense to be heard of the autumnal, but Mozart in springtime worked more than well enough. The slow movement was taken quicker than once would have been the case, but at no loss to its tragic songfulness; it still emerged as a son of its counterpart in the E-flat piano concerto, KV 271. Killius’s viola tone sounded, if anything still richer, Zehetmair’s perhaps less silken, more golden. Violin and viola sang to each other as if operatic lovers. Certainly a vital Mozartian erotic charge was present, whether in the tension of the cadenza or elsewhere; so too was the unmistakeable quality of an orchestra smiling through tears. The finale was bright, bushy-tailed, irresistible, and just as full of musical energy as its predecessors. Indeed, it emerged as the miraculous reconciler of the musical tendencies heard in them. We heard as an encore a duo for violin and viola by Heinz Holliger, the second of his Three Sketches, expressly intended as an encore to this work, viola scordatura and all. It benefited from a similar questing, captivating energy.

At least as high, arguably higher still, in the masterpiece stakes is the Symphony no.39. Though hardly a Cinderella, it nevertheless occasionally seems a little overshadowed by the two symphonies that follow. Indeed, I plead guilty, in a recent programme note for a Salzburg concert in which the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle played all three, to having slightly short-changed it. There was no short-changing here, the first movement’s introduction imbued with a grandeur often missing from chamber-orchestral performances. There was already a quality of pulsating harmonic energy similar to that experienced throughout the first half. If, in a somewhat superficial sense of sonority and attack, Zehetmair’s performance might have sounded strikingly modern when compared with recordings by Klemperer and Böhm, at a deeper level, there was much in common, not least its inexorability, harmonic and motivic. And so, the exposition proper emerged as an inevitable outcome of that introduction. One thing I was less sure about was the agogic touches, not especially exaggerated, and quite ear-catching in themselves; however, they worked less well, perhaps, upon the repeat of the exposition and in the recapitulation, sounding both unduly rehearsed and all too expected. Nevertheless, the concision of the development section registered with due shock: the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth seems almost expansive by comparison. The woodwind sounded lovely, perhaps especially so in the recapitulation, whose climax took one’s breath away as it should. The slow movement I was a little less sure about. It says ‘Andante con moto,’ I suppose, but nevertheless sounded a little too much on the fast side, however sensitively phrased. That said, I sensed a kinship with Schubert when he employed a similar tempo marking, so the fault probably lay with this curmudgeon. The minor-key eruption sounded properly furious; woodwind balm never quite rid our minds of its shadow, which, in a turbulent reading, was doubtless Zehetmair’s point. In context, the brusqueness of the conclusion made a good deal of sense. The minuet was taken at one-to-a-bar with a vengeance, probably the fastest I have heard. And yet, this minuet as scherzo seemed to work in practice, perhaps on account of the security of Zehetmair’s harmonic understanding. The trio relaxed slightly, offering delightful bubbling from the woodwind, even a small instance of clarinet ornamentation. Whilst energetic, the finale did not mistake Allegro for Presto; it remained finely articulated and directed, with plenty of room to breathe. Mozart’s helter-skelter twists and turns were followed and communicated with dramatic flair. I was almost convinced by the taking of the second repeat, blaring trumpets and all. It is difficult to imagine any Mozartian resisting – and would anyone have tried?


Sixtieth birthday concert for Irvine Arditti, 16 October 2013

Wigmore Hall
Ferneyhough – Intermedia alla ciaconna
Robert HP Platz – strings (Echo VII) (UK premiere)
Hilda Paredes – Cuerdas del destino (UK premiere)
Francisco Guerrero – Zayin I + II
Cage – Eight Whiskus
Akira Nishimura – String Quartet no.5, ‘Shesha’ (world premiere)

Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissjan (violins)
Ralf Ehlers (viola)
Lucas Fels (cello)

To say that the world of contemporary music owes Irvine Arditti and the Arditti Quartet an incalculable debt, whilst true, somewhat misses the point; we might be better to say that of the world of music. The Ardittis occasionally venture back even beyond Schoenberg; indeed, I heard them play Beethoven in Edinburgh, and, in an interview with me shortly before those performances, Arditti referred to Bach and Brahms too. But it is the twin abilities to present classics, albeit mostly of the twentieth century, as contemporary, and to present new works in a manner both excitingly of the moment and with all the insight that one might expect, say, the Amadeus Quartet to lavish on Mozart, that really counts.


Ferneyhough’s Intermedio alla ciaccona is a classic by Arditti’s and indeed by anyone’s standards. Twenty-seven years after he gave its 1986 premiere, Arditti ensured that it remained as visceral and as musical an experience as ever. Its ‘fictional polyphony’, to employ the composer’s term, immediately has one think of Bach’s great solo violin example: Bach refracted, in a sense descended from, or at least relatable to, Webern’s great orchestration of the Ricercar from the Musical Offering, yet also quite different, violently so – and of course an entirely new composition. A kaleidoscope of expression unfurls itself nevertheless through the means of a single instrument, within a strong, indeed awe-inspiringly strong, modernist frame. Arditti’s sovereign command as a performer had one believe this to be an experience akin to what I imagine hearing Milstein play Bach might have been. For me, this was perhaps the greatest highlight of a typically exploratory evening.

Robert HP Platz’s 2008 work, strings (Echo VII) received its first British performance. The quartet members gradually enter, one by one, Arditti first, the spatial conceit being their placing around the hall, only the first violin and the cello on stage. In the composer’s words, the piece ‘is a portrait of the four characters in a string quartet, each in his own space, his own time, like four galaxies in polyphonic space, four universes of a meta-universe, to be described by the theory of “strings”.’ I admit that I am not entirely sure what is meant by ‘the theory of “strings”,’ but anyway. It opens with relative reticence and indeed it takes the cello’s entry for the music to turn to what, with doubtless undue Romanticism, I might gingerly call more a passionate tone. Despite spatial separation, or in a sense through its offices, the instruments combine even to the extent of completing each other’s phrases. (Again, I thought of Webern.) It was not quite clear to me what the spatial element added; not that there was anything to which to object. But it was not quite Stockhausen either.

Hilda Parades’s Cuerdas del destino (2007-8) also received its British premiere. From the éclat of its opening pizzicati, via an array of expressive devices such as glissando tremolo and harmonics, and a succession of contrasting types of musical material, this made for a vivid, at times almost, though only almost, pictorial journey. There is a palpable sense of drama to the work – as there was to the quartet’s committed performance. The concluding section seemed both old – recognisable material from what had gone before – and new, that material being employed in different ways. It registered almost as a translation of a cyclical symphonic principle to the world of the contemporary string quartet: not entirely unlike the Arditti Quartet’s very raison d’être.

Francisco Guerrero’s Zayin cycle of seven pieces for string trio, written over the period 1983 to 1997, has yet to be performed in its entirety in this country. The first two pieces certainly made a powerful impression, whetting the appetite for more, the powerful energy inherent in both works and performances offering something of a revelation. Motor rhythms, post-Stravinskian in the best sense, offer again an array of expressive possibilities. At one point, the way in which the instruments seemed, as it were, to be pedalling uphill offered an analogy with which to grasp the music’s progression, but the best thing perhaps, especially on a first hearing, was simply to surrender. The virtuosity and musicality unleashed in performance were second to none.

Arditti then performed a solo work that could hardly have been more contrasted had it been taken from a much earlier century; arguably Cage’s Eight Whiskus is still more contrasted than, say, Bach or Biber. Apparently it follows on from an original version for voice, which Cage, in consultation with the violinist Malcolm Goldstein, reworked so that ‘the vowel and consonant qualities of the poem are transformed into various bowing positions, gradations of bowing pressure, and forms of articulation’. A fascinating idea, no doubt, yet what struck me was the apparently disarming simplicity of the piece: probably an illusion, but maybe not. I do not think, moreover, it was fanciful to glean some sense of translation from words to violin technique, even when one had no idea what the original text was.

Finally came the world premiere of Akiraa Nishimura’s firth string quartet, written to commemorate Arditti’s sixtieth birthday and dedicated to him. ‘Shesha’ refers, in the composer’s words, ‘to the name of a gigantic snake with thousands of heads , which appears in the Indian myth. It lives beneath the ground and supports the earth. Shesha’s awakening means the earth’s awakening.’ Indeed, without at the time having read the note, I sensed something of a kinship in the first section, that of Shesha’s awakening, to The Rite of Spring, intense and teeming with life. The apparent Romanticism – a relative term, I admit – of what followed was certainly impressive in terms of the Arditti Quartet’s performance, but sounded perhaps slightly as a reversion, even if one could hardly say to what. Perhaps, though, that was the point, as the second and third sections evoked ‘Samudra manthan’ (the churning of the ocean of milk) and ‘Amrita’ (the nectar of immortal life). What seemed as though it might be the still centre of the work actually proved to be its conclusion: an interesting confounding of expectations, even if those expectations were only mine. At any rate, the concert left us in no doubt that both Irvine Arditti and the quartet that bears his name will continue both to exceed and to confound our expectations.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Ax/LSO/Haitink - Mozart and Shostakovich, 15 October 2013

Barbican Hall 

Mozart – Piano Concerto no.27 in B-flat major, KV 595
Shostakovich – Symphony no.15 in A major, op.141

Emanuel  Ax (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

No prizes for guessing which conductor I immediately associate with the LSO and Mozart.  Sir Colin Davis’s shoes are impossible to fill in so many ways, but I was delighted, almost astonished, to hear the orchestra on as excellent Mozartian form as I can recall. Not, of course, that I doubt Bernard Haitink’s credentials in this repertoire, but even he would cede to Sir Colin in my affections in this case – or at least he would have done before this concert. The orchestra may have been small (ten first violins down to four double basses), but there was nothing underpowered about its performance. The opening of the first movement was crisp, with woodwind more prominent, even adamant, than one might have expected; clearly Haitink was determined that Mozart should not go excessively gentle into that good night. It might be exaggerated to consider his reading revisionist, for if it were, it was with the greatest subtlety, but it was in the best sense refreshing. Moreover, this movement was definitely heard as an Allegro. Mozartian perfection, then? Alas, not quite. This is the most unforgiving of all music; every slight imperfection tells and is magnified, and so it was with Emanuel Ax’s performance. There was much to admire. From the outset, his tone was clean, and his touch impressively variegated. Even early on, though, there was some puzzling, ungainly phrasing – repeated in the recapitulation, so it was no accident. During the development section, it was the orchestra that providing most of the energy, and also most of the sensuous pleasure, the woodwind, and particularly Emmanuel Laville’s oboe, simply ravishing. Returning, as it were, to the recapitulation, Ax badly smudged one run, but there was ample compensation to be had from the loving, yet never indulged second subject from the orchestra, somewhat blithely tossed away, alas, by the pianist. Mozart’s cadenza also had a degree of glibness to it, if only by comparison with what we heard from the LSO. I longed for a pianist such as Daniel Barenboim to probe beneath the surface – as, of course orchestra and conductor did throughout.

Ax was much improved in the second movement, though his ornamentation sometimes veered dangerously close to the intrusive – and was actually eminently predictable. The truest musical rewards were once again to be heard from Haitink and the LSO; heartfelt, beautifully sonorous, above all unaffected. The finale was equally well shaped, rhythms delighting rather than hardening, as they might in lesser hands, into rigidity. If the music sounded more ebullient than half-lit, it was none the worse for that. Occasional heavy-handedness from the pianist was again more than compensated for by the subtle, sovereign command of Haitink and the quickening response of the LSO. This was some of the best Mozart playing I have heard – and that includes from the Vienna Philharmonic.

Shostakovich’s final symphony opened in at least as sprightly, at least as precise, fashion. Flute and percussion, then strings and bassoon, combined to suggest an almost Prokofiev-like magic (think of the Seventh Symphony); but then, ambivalence, of a different sort from Prokofiev’s, set in, both through the offices of orchestral exactitude, in the best sense, and, of course, enigmatic quotation. What does it mean? Haitink seemed to have just the right, Shostakovich-like attitude of: ‘Don’t ask me! I’m just the humble musician.’ What a relief it was to hear Shostakovich’s music, to my mind at its best here, utterly distanced from Cold War nonsense – however Soviet-tinged the vibrato of the LSO brass might sound, both in this movement and in those strange trombone-and-tuba chords of the next. Strings were rapier-sharp. Tim Hugh’s cello solo in the slow movement was every bit as finely wrought as leader Roman Simovic’s briefer yet equally important solo contributions; indeed, though I suppose I may have missed one, I cannot recall a single solo from any member of the orchestra that was not of the very highest order. Haitink paced the movement as well as one might expect from so distinguished a Brucknerian. The strangeness of sonority and harmony registered with no need for grotesque underlining. Structure was powerfully conveyed in what, despite a well-nigh inevitable bronchial onslaught from members of the audience, was at least as masterly an account as the conductor’s celebrated Decca recording. What too often in the composer’s earlier work sounds as empty devices here and now acquired true ‘meaning’, partly and paradoxically on account of the apparent rejection by score and performance alike of ‘meaning’ as conventionally understood.

The scherzo was sardonic, brutally so, ensuring that the material’s dangerous propensity toward banality was never truly realised. Rhythms and balances were equally tight. The LSO’s percussion section, here as elsewhere, was outstanding, preparing the way for the dénouement. Hearing Wagner, if only in quotation at the opening of the final movement, made one long to hear the composer’s music from Haitink once again. Such was the rightness, even in so different a context, that I almost felt as if he were about to launch into Siegfried’s Funeral March, but no... Tone lightened, yet remained unsettled, disconcerting. Haitink’s near-absolute control, musicianly not tyrannical, and the keenness of the LSO’s response conspired together to render inevitable the emergence and course of the passacaglia, frustrated as it was to a certain extent by what at times seemed like a cough or sneeze per bar. The climax, anyway, was powerful indeed. This may be ‘good’ rather than ‘great’ music, but it was far and away the best Shostakovich performance I have heard. And the coda, when it came, proved as chilling as ever – perhaps more so.

Das Liebesverbot, Oper Leipzig, 13 October 2013

Images: Kirsten Nijhof

Leipzig Opera House

Brighella – Reinhard Dorn
Pontio Pilato – Martin Petzhold
Luzio – Mark Adler
Claudio – Daniel Kirch
Antonio – Dan Karlström
Angelo – Jürgen Kurth
Danieli – Sejung Chang
Friedrich – Tuomas Pursio
Isabella – Lydia Easley
Mariana – Olena Tokar
Dorella – Magdalena Hinterdobler

Aron Stiehl (director)
Jürgen Kirner (set designs)
Sven Bindsell (costumes)
Christian Schatz (lighting)
Christian Geltinger (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Leipzig Opera (chorus master: Alessandro Zuppardo)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Matthias Foremny (conductor)

Das Liebesverbot, Wagner’s second completed opera, marked an advance upon his first, Die Feen, in one respect. It was performed in his lifetime – once, in Magdeburg, on 29 March 1836, in what Wagner, in Mein Leben, would describe as a ‘totally muddled performance’, such that the ‘material ... remained utterly obscure to the public’. For the second performance, there appeared to be only three people in the stalls, ‘Frau Gottschalk with her husband and a very conspicuous Polish Jew in full costume.’ Drama of a rather different kind, however, ensued behind the stage:

There, Herr Pollert, the husband of my leading lady (who was taking the part of Isabella), had run across the second tenor, Schreiber, a very young and handsome man who was to sing my Claudio, against whom the offended husband had long nursed a secret rancour born of jealousy. ... My Cluadio took such a pasting ... that the unfortunate fellow had to retreat into the dressing-room, his face bloodied. Isabella received news of this, and plunged after her raging husband in desperation, only to be so soundly cuffed by him that she went into a fit. The uproar among the ensemble soon knew no bounds: people took sides, and it wouldn’t have taken much more to produce a free-for-all, for it seemed that this unhappy evening offered everyone a suitable occasion to pay off mutual grievances once and for all. It was soon evident that the two who had been subjected to Herr Pollert’s ‘ban on love’ were quite incapable of mounting the stage that day. The stage director was sent before the curtain to advise the curiously select gathering in the auditorium that ‘owing to unforeseen difficulties’ the performance of the opera could not take place.

With that came ‘the end’ of Wagner’s ‘career as conductor and composer of operas in Magdeburg. The story might make rather a good opera in itself, or at least a metatheatrical conceit for a staging of Wagner’s own ‘ban on love’ opera: Die Novize von Palermo, as it had to be called, in order to satisfy the Lenten censor. (Wagner’s assurance that it had been ‘adapted from a very serious Shakespearean play,’ Measure for Measure, also seems to have helped.)

Such, in this co-production with Bayreuth – two performances took place there not in the Festspielhaus as part of the Festival proper, but in the Oberfrankenhalle, in July – was not, however, to be the case. There were, moreover, many more people in the Leipzig audience; indeed, the stalls on this occasion were close to full. Let us leave, though, on one side my Konzept, which, should they ever deign to stage the work, I am happy to let one of our English companies have for nothing. The Leipzig staging has some powerful moments, though some that left me a little bewildered too. Jürgen Kirner’s set designs provide an impressive backdrop, especially for the monochrome coldness of the hypocritical viceroy Friedrich’s office, and the convent scene, in which Isabella, newly admitted, receives news from Luzio, of her brother Claudio’s impending ‘death penalty for an amorous escapade’ (Mein Leben). There, relative abstraction and a sign of the Cross strike just the right balance between the serenity of the setting and a warning that Wagner’s Young German concerns wish to promote a ‘victory of free sensualism over puritanical hypocrisy’, as the composer put it in his Autobiographical Sketch for Heinrich Laube’s Zeitung für die elegente Welt. (Laube himself was quite an influence upon this and subsequent Wagner dramas, Tannhäuser included.) That, presumably, was also the justification for a recurring screen emblazoned with what seemed to be photographs of a lush, tropical rainforest, complete with insects. Sicilian heat might, however, have been more clearly expressed with something a little closer to home. Giant masks for the forbidden and ultimately victorious Carnival – though is it ultimately to be victorious? – offer an intriguing hint that apparent licence may cast its own dialectical authoritarianism.

Tuomas Pursio (Friedrich)

Without a stronger overall directorial conception, though, a post-modern æsthetic, with hippyish costumes for the apostles of free(-ish) love, older dress for the forces of authority, something more ‘timeless’ for Isabella and her friend Mariana in the convent, and so on, does not necessarily add up to the sum of its parts, let alone something more than them. For Aron Stiehl, in his direction of the work, sometimes seems more intent upon ironising it than engaging with Wagner’s concerns; irony and Wagner are if not quite impossible partners than bedfellows for whom comfort is of little concern. In what is, perhaps, in musical terms the composer’s weakest completed opera, he probably needs a little more help than this. Silly dances for the chorus send up rather than probe Wagner’s not-entirely-successful attempt at Italianate levity. The score itself insists that, whatever his would-be libertinism, he cannot let go of the Germanic roots that had served him so well in Die Feen and would soon do so again. Such is, of course, at odds with Wagner’s alleged dramatic concerns: Friedrich and German regulation are very much the enemy. The concluding surprise, in which Friedrich re-emerges, apparently to take command once again of the situation and meet the King, is an interesting step, quite at odds with Wagner’s crowd-dispensed justice, in which the viceroy is permitted by the crowd, far more clement than he, to lose himself in the carnival celebration. It would, however, register more powerfully as a questioning of the work – in any case, something of a difficult task, when relatively few in the audience will know the opera – were it better prepared. It jars – such, at any rate, was my experience in the theatre, as opposed to my post hoc attempt at explication – rather than convinces dramatically. Still, Personenregie is in itself accomplished; one gains a sense that the characters are doing what they have been asked.    


The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra offered a typically deep and burnished sound, though there were moments when ensemble was not as tight as one might have hoped for. Conductor Matthias Foremny may well, however, have been at fault in that respect, for his reading often seemed a little unsure whether to stress the Teutonic or the Italianate, not only falling been two stools, which, given Wagner’s score, might well be fair enough, even fruitful, but hesitant. The (relatively) well-known Overture, in which most of Wagner’s more memorable melodic ideas put in an appearance, was a case in point. It may be unfair to draw a comparison with Wolfgang Sawallisch’s excellent Munich recording (or indeed, his Philadelphia recording of the Overture alone), but the conviction required to harness disparate elements, to channel them into a more-or-less convincing sequence, if not quite an organic whole, was missing here. Foremny’s stopping and starting was to a certain extent overcome as the performance progressed; however, I could not help but wonder what might have come from a less Kapellmeister-ish account, such, for instance, as Ulf Schirmer had offered earlier in the year, for Leipzig’s splendid production of Die Feen.

Christiane Libor had played Isabella on the first night; for this second-night performance,  she was replaced by Lydia Easley. It seemed to take a little while for Easley fully to get into her stride, and there were a few questionable moments of intonation when it came to coloratura, but hers was on the whole an impressive, convincing performance. Olena Tokar made a fine impression as Mariana, the wronged, abandoned wife of Friedrich, especially in a beautifully-sung account of her second-act aria. Daniel Kirch and Mark Adler offered much to admire as Claudio and Luzio; it would be good to hear more of them in later, more substantial Wagner roles. Reinhard Dorn’s Brighella (the Sbirri chief) was stronger on comic action than vocal beauty, but perhaps that was the point. He certainly contrasted well with the more malevolent and indeed more complex Friedrich of Tuomas Pursio, whose stage presence and vocal delivery exerted a fascination perhaps beyond the strict merits of the score. Choral singing was of a high standard throughout, especially so in the second act. We can safely assume, then, that, whatever reservations might be voiced concerning the production, the Leipzig audience had a far better opportunity to see and to hear something approaching Wagner’s conception, however flawed, than the bewildered citizens of Magdeburg ever did, or Wagner ever would.

Volodos/Gewandhaus/Chailly - Brahms, 13 October 2013

Neues Gewandhaus, Leipzig

Symphony no.2 in D major, op.73
Piano Concerto no.2 in B-flat major, op.83

Arcadi Volodos (piano)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly (conductor)

Players of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra just prior to the
Saturday evening rehearsal for this concert

Riccardo Chailly’s recent Decca recordings of the Brahms symphonies and assorted other orchestral works are being heavily promoted by symphony-and-concerto cycles – the concertos do not appear in the Decca set – first in Leipzig, and later in London, Paris, and Vienna. I cannot claim to have been a devotee of Chailly’s Beethoven, much though I love the sound of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and so, not having heard the Brahms recordings, approached this concert with some trepidation. Perhaps I should have recalled a Prom a good few years ago, in which Beethoven and Brahms were combined, for I had found the latter far more to my liking. At any rate, if the inevitable list of favourites from the past remains unchallenged, a problem almost as great for Brahms as for Beethoven, this concert offered rewards beyond the undoubted pleasure of this great orchestra’s ‘old German’ sound.

The first movement of the Second Symphony was certainly not slow, but nor was it unduly driven. Tempo variations were properly transitional, with none of the abrupt gear changes one often hears in this music from ‘period’ conductors attempting to sound ‘Romantic’. Chailly’s reading focused attention upon Brahms’s concision, at least during the exposition; yet there was room for expansiveness later on too. Counterpoint was not merely ‘busy’, but urgently propelling. This remained Brahms somewhat in the mould of Schumann, even Mendelssohn, but there was strength where required. Here and elsewhere, the Leipzig woodwind ravished in properly post-Mozartian mould; such was Harmoniemusik to melt the heart of the most sceptical of listeners. Schumann seemed still more to haunt the second movement, more an intermezzo than an Adagio, even with the caveat non troppo. Yet it worked; it seemed properly ‘placed’ within Chailly’s conception of the whole. Impressively shaped, Brahms’s melodic transformations had a necessary sense of ‘rightness’. Much the same could be said of the third movement in its different way. Balletic to an extent that on occasion suggested Tchaikovsky, it is not how I should always want to hear the music; here, however, it made sense. The finale opened in what was perhaps overly excitable fashion, and remained urgent throughout. Despite occasional lapses in ensemble, the Gewandhaus Orchestra once again displayed a fine pedigree in Brahms. The first of the composer’s Hungarian Dances made for a swashbuckling and surprising encore – given that this was only the first half.

Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto is not so often heard as one might expect. Though I have loved it since I first heard it as a sixth-former, I cannot recall having attended a single concert performance, though I have often heard its D minor elder sibling. Its ferocious technical demands were met with ease by Arcadi Volodos; yet, however impressive on its own terms, such pianistic prowess is only a starting-point for a musical performance. Technique, as Sir Peter Pears once remarked, is the liberation of the imagination – or at least it should be. If Chailly and Volodos did not plumb the metaphysical depths of, say, Gilels and Jochum, in what remains to my mind the greatest recording I have heard of the greatest piano concerto since Beethoven, they nevertheless offered a thoroughly musical traversal. The orchestra sounded lithe in its exposition, Chailly’s occasional rhetorical inflections convincing and purposeful rather than attention-seeking. There was strength, truthfulness even, to Volodos’s performance when he re-entered. If, hearing his tone ‘blind’, I might have thought it more apposite to Liszt than to Brahms, that was perhaps as much a matter of his Steinway as anything else. (I cling in principle to my preference for a Bösendorfer here, though a great performance will soon rid my mind of such thoughts.) Moreover, the ‘fullness’ of Brahms’s piano writing was felt, understood, and communicated without heaviness. Trills were to die for too. And what a gloriously full-blooded string sound was unleashed on occasion. The scherzo was urgent, though not unduly driven. Volodos’s phrasing and shading were just as intelligent here. That difficult transition to the trio was well handled by Chailly, the ensuing cross-rhythms making their point. The slow movement was flowing, never rigid. Hand on heart, I found it difficult to warm to the tone of the principal cellist, relatively thin, with wide vibrato apparently employed to compensate. His solos were well shaped however, and taste is certainly a factor in such matters. Volodos displayed rich variation in piano tone, from half lights that peered forward to the late solo works to a full Brahms thunder that evoked the First Piano Concerto. There were wonderful moments of rapt stillness too, from orchestra and soloist alike. The finale was well judged, with a winning lilt that eludes a good number of performers. Once again, the Leipzig woodwind proved an especial joy, prompting memories of the symphony in the first half, helping to impart further unity to an impressive Sunday morning concert.