Thursday 10 April 2014

Capuçon/LPO/Saraste - Schumann and Bruckner, 9 April 2014

Royal Festival Hall

Schumann – Violin Concerto in D minor, WoO 23
Bruckner – Symphony no.8 in C major

Renaud Capuçon (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste (conductor)

The Schumann Violin Concerto remains a problematical work. Too good to discard, not quite coherent enough ever – yet? – entirely to convince, it hovers on the edge of the repertoire. Renaud Capuçon, the LPO, and Jukka-Pekka Saraste made a very good case for it. The opening orchestral tutti sounded properly symphonic – Schumann-symphonic, that is, with various hints of the composer’s symphonies. And when Capuçon entered, we were treated to a performance that was not only sweet-toned, but which clearly knew where the work was going, insofar as that be possible. Indeed, whilst remaining characteristic, this was a solo performance that nudged the work closer to Brahms, no bad thing at all, especially for a violin concerto. There were times when Saraste seemed a little too much the mere ‘accompanist’: partly a consequence of the work, though only partly so. Yet they should not be exaggerated; this was in most respects an excellent performance from both soloist and orchestra. The slow movement seemed just ‘right’ in terms of tempo and general mood. That is not to say that it could not be done differently, but rather that it convinced, again insofar as that be possible. Poised nicely between chamber and orchestral music, the movement as a whole benefited from the example of give and take afforded by solo violin and cello. A relatively small orchestra could, moreover, call upon weightier tone when required. If the transition to the finale did not convince, then I am not sure there is much more the performers could have done. Once settled down, it again worked well, Saraste’s ear for harmony and rhythm especially propitious. Throughout, of course, Capuçon’s well-nigh Old World style worked its wonders.

Such a work offers no mean first half, when the second is Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. I find myself rather in two minds about Saraste’s performance, intriguing and somewhat unconvincing in more or less equal measure. (Such is not a comment upon the orchestral performance as such, which, bar a little evident tiredness towards the end of the finale, was less ambiguous in its quality.)  The first movement, marked Allegro moderato, was not necessarily excessively fast, but certainly sounded more Allegro than I can recall having heard previously. That need not have been a problem; indeed, in many ways it proved refreshing. But there were times when greater flexibility would have been in order. Such, after all, is the nature of Bruckner’s sonata forms and ‘deformations’. Urgency, then, was welcome, but not at the expense of variety within unity. A few moments of (relative) stillness seemed to look forward to Mahler, but it was not always clear how we had arrived there. As a consequence of that movement’s swift tempo, the scherzo came as less of a contrast, more of a continuation (perhaps not entirely like Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, at least for those of us who continue to prefer placing the scherzo second in that work). Here, rhythm and harmony were better aligned; it was rather impressive. However, the trio relaxed in the wrong sense; rather than offering a degree of relief, it seemed merely to meander.

The slow movement was on the swift side again, though not unreasonably so. There was some beautiful playing from the strings in particular, harps included. Saraste’s conception might have be considered ‘objective’, though I think that is probably a misnomer. There was certainly for the most part a general sense of shape, but that did not always translate into formal dynamism. All the more difficult, I know, in a slow movement, but then, that is what a conductor is for. The brass, here and the finale, sometimes displayed a tendency towards undue loudness. My overriding question remained, however: what does this, or at least might this, mean? Saraste seemed less enigmatic than uninterested. For the most part, the finale proved convincing. Notwithstanding those few slips previously mentioned and a certain brass crudity at times, the LPO offered a powerful and in many ways subtle performance. There was a good deal of light and shade, allied to the general progression of the musical argument. (And yes, Bruckner-sceptics, there is a musical argument, if not of a Brahmsian variety!) Schubert seemed to haunt a number of passages, the movement torn between such backward glances and something more modernistic. Moreover, the ambiguity of major-mode passages registered splendidly; there was still battle to be done. Alas, much of this very good work was undone by Saraste’s bizarre rush to the finish, almost as if embarrassed by the final peroration. It went for nothing, not even superficially exciting: a great pity.