Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Eberle/Prohaska/LSO/Rattle - Beethoven, Henze, and Schumann, 1 June 2014

Barbican Hall

Beethoven – Violin Concerto in D major, op.61
Henze – Being Beauteous
Schumann – Symphony no.2 in C major, op.61

Veronika Eberle (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

This was very much a concert of two halves. A well-nigh unlistenable performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto was arbitrarily pulled about to an extent I had never heard before, and hope never to hear again. It was followed by a truly ravishing performance of Henze’s Being Beauteous, and – given Sir Simon Rattle’s record in the Beethoven – a surprisingly convincing account of Schumann’s Second Symphony. The London Symphony Orchestra, it should be added, proved to be on fine form throughout, though how one longed to hear it play Beethoven under the likes of the late Sir Colin Davis or Bernard Haitink.

The concerto did not start so badly, though even the opening orchestral tutti had some oddities: strangely accented notes, eccentric highlighting of certain parts. (A tendency that has bedevilled much of Rattle’s work with the Berlin Philharmonic, doing something simply because the orchestra has the technical capability of doing so, reasserted itself here with the LSO. It is perhaps not entirely fanciful to think that Rattle’s best work has often been either with works of great technical complexity, less prone to allow space for interpretative eccentricity, or with orchestras of less than the first rank.) Unfortunately, matters became worse once Veronika Eberle had made her entry, suggesting that the responsibility lay at least as much with her as with Rattle, an impression furthered as time went on. In some sections of a movement that seemed to go on forever, there was barely a phrase that was not pulled about in one way or another. Any sense of basic pulse was lost. There is plenty of licence in the cadenza (Kreisler), of course, but Eberle somehow even went beyond the bounds of the permissible, or at least the comprehensible, there; shape and direction were entirely lacking. Her tone was often light, edgy even, though matters improved in that respect, if in few others. A tendency of Rattle towards dynamic extremes, especially in the register beyond pianissimo, was felt still more strongly in the slow movement, which was taken very slowly indeed, more of an Adagio than a Larghetto. There were ‘interesting’ moments, but it all felt too much like hard work: being made to sing rather than singing freely. The mood of enforced rêverie was rudely shattered by an aggressive, though less mannered, finale. It was an improvement, and the LSO continued to play very well indeed, but it remained too little, too late. The audience for the most part, however, seemed to think otherwise, responding rapturously.

Henze’s Being Beauteous, a Rimbaud cantata for coloratura soprano, four cellos, and harp, was given its premiere by members of the Berlin Philharmonic, so it seemed particularly fitting for a successor to Karajan and another Berlin-based musician, Anna Prohaska, to revisit it. The performance – let us not forget cellists, Rebecca Gilliver, Minat Lyons, Alastair Blayden, and Jennifer Brown, and harpist, Bryn Lewis – was utterly beyond reproach. Here, at last, there was no point-making, but music-making of the very highest and indeed most erotic order. The intensity of string playing brought out Henze’s debts to the Second Viennese School, yet equally apparent was the ‘Apollonian’, Stravinskian side to his musical identity. Prohaska’s performance, moreover, underlined, consciously or otherwise, potential connections with Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, a work of which she is also a distinguished exponent, and perhaps even the same composer’s Herzgewächse, surely an ideal piece for such a voice. For the floating of the high notes was something truly to be savoured, especially against such an instrumental background, expertly shaped by Rattle, of musical and sexual frisson and fulfilment. Moreover, this was true chamber music: the way in which voice and cellos would slide together, as well as differentiate themselves from each other, was second to none. This remained German, dialectically questing music, but there was no denying the sultry lyricism, whether in work or performance. It was rather as if Wagner had after all heeded Nietzsche’s call, ‘il faut méditerraniser la musique’. Oh! nos os sont revêtus d’un nouveau corps amoureux…

Then on to Schumann’s Second Symphony. After an oddly subdued introduction to the first movement, the music continued in unobjectionable, if somewhat unremarkable fashion, relatively ‘straight’ and all the better for it. Pointing of details was not excessive, and the orchestra was largely permitted to get on with performing the work. The graceful phrasing of the LSO strings was a joy to hear – and a meaningful joy at that. I have heard the movement’s Beethovenian echoes resound more strongly, but this was nevertheless a reading of purpose, quite unlike the actual Beethoven we had heard. The scherzo was taking at a bracingly fast tempo, but was never garbled, the LSO’s fabled virtuosity here a necessity rather than a luxury. There were some agogic touches which I could have done without, but they were not unduly disruptive. Likewise, whilst the trios arguably slowed too much, that was not to the point of breakdown. Indeed, there were revealed in that context suggestive affinities with Schumann’s piano music. The slow movement was – what a relief! – very much at ease with itself. It sang; it had line. There was excellent playing from all concerned, whether the burnished strings or the Mozartian wind-band; the horns in particular sounded ravishing. It was a pity that one unduly mannered passage of ultra-quiet playing disrupted the general flow, but normal service was soon resumed. The finale was taken quickly: more in the line of Mendelssohn than Beethoven or Brahms. However, its levity of mood, its buoyant good humour, proved infectious. Fluctuations of tempo made sense, as opposed to seeming arbitrarily applied. This offered a fitting conclusion to a generally impressive reading.