Saturday 4 April 2015

Berlin Festtage (5) - Kremer/Kozhukhin: Weinberg, Brahms, and Franck, 1 April 2015

Philharmonie, Berlin

Weinberg – Sonata no.2 for solo violin, op.95
Brahms – Fantasies, op.116
Weinberg – Sonata no.3 for solo violin, op.126
Franck – Sonata in A major, for violin and piano

Gidon Kremer (violin)
Denis Kozhukhin (piano)

1 April: I suppose the date should have given it away. Perhaps I am being unduly cynical, but this was the fifth time I had booked to hear Martha Argerich, and the fifth time she had cancelled. At any rate, a ‘feverish flu’ led to her replacement with Denis Kozhukhin and consequent rearrangement of the programme. Out went a Beethoven sonata (op.30 no.3) and one of Mieczysław Weinberg’s sonatas for violin and piano; in came Brahms’s op.116 Fantasien and a second of Weinberg’s sonatas for solo violin.

Frankly, one would have been more than enough, not least given the sometimes shocking performance offered by Gidon Kremer of Weinberg’s op.95. It took until the sixth of its seven movements for the performance to sound like a performance at all; a friend commented that Kremer had often sounded as if he were someone practising in his bedroom, and it was difficult to dissent. Maybe he had been as irritated by the rearrangement of the programme as many others. The poverty of Weinberg’s invention nevertheless came through, the first movement, ‘Monody’, made of the sort of banal figuration with occasional wrong notes Shostakovich would offer with (in a generous reading) irony. With this piece, however, irony was difficult to discern. Likewise, the third movement seemed characterised by sub-Shostakovich impotent anger. Kremer’s somewhat fuller tone – before, only thinness had been striking – was welcome in the final two movements, but that did not, most likely could not, disguise the sense of straining and failing to achieve profundity.

The one-movement Third Sonata, with which the second half started, was much more of a performance, certainly more urgent. Indeed, it was in this that Kremer sounded at his best. Weinberg, perhaps, shows at times a slightly less reactionary language and, more to the point, a stronger sense of development. At best, at least at the beginning, there are some mildly attractive ideas, whose development was over-extended. That, I am afraid, is the greatest enthusiasm I can muster. I think it is time to say that, as with some of the Entartete Musik composers and, more often than not, Shostakovich that an undeniably moving personal story and political persecution do not guarantee convincing, let alone compelling, music.

Denis Kozhukhin’s contributions proved to be stronger than Kremer’s. Kozhukhin’s Brahms is not for me the most appealing; I simply – or perhaps not simply – hear and understand the music differently. However, on its own, Romantic, ‘grand manner’ terms, it worked very well. It is perhaps too easy to describe it as ‘Russian’ Brahms, but there was more than a hint of that. The opening Capriccio showed a great dynamic range: ‘big’ tone, which can certainly be scaled down. If the following Intermezzo might have been intimate in conception, especially to begin with, it was admirably flexible; this remained, however, very ‘public’ Brahms. (One might well argue that a large hall such as the Philharmonie invites such a conception.) A stormy third movement had little sense of Brahms as progenitor of Webern, but certainly held the attention. The succeeding Intermezzo was slower than is perhaps fashionable, but none the worse for that. It was played beautifully, if at times the sound edged a little close to Rachmaninov. Moreover, the central section achieved a beautiful sense of half-lighting. The next Intermezzo, the fifth movement, was meaningfully voiced, though not in a modernist fashion. Its successor was bracingly fast, at least according to pianistic ‘tradition’, but arguably – just about – an ‘Andantino’ nevertheless. Such a reading is preferable to a sentimental one, but was the piece’s heart perhaps lost? The final movement needs to be fast, and it was; it was certainly ‘agitato’ too. Voicing again was a particular strength. And how the poverty of Weinberg’s inspiration was shown up!

As for the Franck Sonata, the only piece in which violinist and pianist appeared together, it was Kozhukhin’s playing that proved by far the more compelling. Even relative understatement, as at the beginning of the first movement, drew one in. Kremer’s wiry tone was disappointing, his poor intonation rather more than that. The performance did not conceal the truth of Debussy’s jibe about Franck as a ‘modulating machine’; the best can. In the second movement, Kozhukhin’s tone, recognisable from his Brahms, offered much to admire, Kremer’s only rarely. Much the same could be said of the very different third movement. Kozhukhin’s legato was pleasing, but in itself could not paper over the cracks of the composer’s vaunted cyclic method. More of the same in the finale – with some breathtaking pianism from Kozhukhin. In replacing Argerich, he saved the day in more than one sense.