Péter Eötvös Replaces Pierre Boulez in a Revealing Programme with the LSO

April 30, 2012

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Szymanowski, and Scriabin:Christian Teztlaff (violin), Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, Péter Eötvös (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 29.4.2012 (MB)

DebussyNocturnes
Szymanowski – Violin Concerto no.1
ScriabinThe Poem of Ecstasy

It was inevitable that the shadow of Pierre Boulez would fall at least a little over this concert, the first of two from which he had to withdraw owing to ill health. Nevertheless, Péter Eötvös, who has taken over two demanding and highly individual programmes without alteration, made them his own to a remarkable extent; or, to put it another way, so as not to suggest self-aggrandisement, he ensured that the listener’s attention was focused upon the music rather than the performers. One of the many aspects of Boulez’s genius has been that for revealing programming, and so it was here, even in absentia. I should therefore dissent from Kathryn McDowell’s description in the programme booklet of the concert as an ‘eclectic 20th-century programme,’ quite apart from the dating of Debussy’s Nocturnes, completed in 1899.

One would perhaps have to return to the likes of Roger Désormière to find a conductor more strongly associated with the music of Debussy than Boulez, and though Eötvös’s performance had its virtues, it also had its slight disappointments. The direct approach adopted from the opening of ‘Nuages’ intrigued, the LSO woodwind almost Classical in character, but strings added mystery upon their entry, putting me in mind of Pelléas. Impressively, the string sound was recognisably ‘Gallic’; I could not help but think that even Désormière would have recognised it as such. Eötvös contributed a compelling sense of line, which, fused with his ear for detail, imparted an impressive sense of something that approaching (wordless) narrative. At times, I thought of Bartók’s ballet, The Wooden Prince, as well, of course, as Liszt’s Nuages gris, greatly admired by Debussy, and the composer’s own Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. ‘Fêtes’ was lively but often somewhat brash, rather as I imagine it might have sounded under Sir Georg Solti. (I know that he recorded Images, but I have not heard the results.) However, what the performance lacked in refinement, it partly made up in rhythmic certainty. ‘Sirènes’ was again direct in approach, and again benefited from an impressive sense of continuity. Despite a fine contribution from the ladies of the London Symphony Chorus, there have, however, been performances more seductively conceived.

Christian Tetzlaff joined the orchestra for a triumphant performance of Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto, as much the orchestra’s show as his, as was announced by the opening, teeming with life and exhibiting a veritable kaleidoscope of colour, answered by a sinuous, beguiling, and unquestionably seductive violin entry. The performance as a whole was highly dramatic, Eötvös and Teztlaff alike ensuring that there was never even the slightest hint that Szymanowski’s golden thread might snap. One felt enveloped, and gorgeously so, yet also in sure hands with respect to direction. The contrast with a recent performance of the composer’s Third Symphony from Vladimir Jurowski was in that respect pronounced. Szymanowski’s originality concerning form spoke for and created itself – clearly and evocatively. And what a glorious wash of sound the LSO could produce, contrasting with Teztlaff’s silver and gold, a contrast lying at the heart of a remarkable performance. Not that that should be taken to imply that Teztlaff’s performance lacked spellbinding and impassioned virtuosity, for it did not; however, the work sounded so much more than a ‘late Romantic’ concerto, if indeed, which I doubt, that soubriquet retains much validity at all. Quite why some of the violin concertos that appear with wearying frequency on concert programmes are preferred to this one I truly cannot imagine. At any rate, this must surely have garnered both work and composer a new host of converts. Teztlaff treated the audience to an encore: the ‘Melodia’ from Bartok’s solo violin sonata. His command of line and expressive commitment, especially in terms of hushed intimacy, clearly drew in the audience, for, as Gareth Davies (@flutelicious), the LSO’s principal flautist, tweeted to me during the interval, this was a rendition miraculously free of coughing.

Boulez clearly entertains a degree of ambivalence towards Scriabin; frankly, it would be a strange sort of person who did not. He has spoken of a general preference for the more exploratory piano music, yet has also recorded some of the orchestral works, The Poem of Ecstasy twice in fact. The virtues of our absent guest’s programming were revealed as the opening bars’ sonorities suggested a placing of our composer somewhere between Debussy and Szymanowski. Adam Walker’s excellent flute playing should definitely be accorded a mention, ranging ably from the languorous to the sprightly. Wagnerisms, especially Tristan-isms, were attended to, whether in terms of highlighting kinship of material, or more importantly, in the expression of the frustration at inability to climax. (Tannhäuser is surely also an influence, or at least a precedent, here. Perhaps Strauss is too.) What unsympathetic listeners – and performances – might suggest to be mere bombast or indeed mere languor, was granted as true a sense of dramatic justification as one might hope for. Decadent it certainly was – how could it not be? – and so it was down to the last arabesque; yet, even if the music is less ‘progressive’ than some of Scriabin’s piano writing, and even if it is too much of a good, or more likely a bad, thing, I was more than happy to indulge. Should one have felt a little dirty at the end? Perhaps, but even Boulez cannot live by Webern alone.

Mark Berry

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