Stanislaw Skrowaczewski: Masterly in Bruckner

October 27, 2012

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Bruckner:  Hilary Hahn (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 24.10.2012 (CC)

Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 in A, K219, “Turkish”
Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E

It was interesting to hear Skrowaczewski conducting this orchestra so soon after Masur (on the 20th). Skrowaczewski has just turned 90; Masur is 85, making their combined ages a remarkable 174 years. The treat was that both reveal a way of conducting that is largely absent today: both can think in large paragraphs while simultaneously paying attention to surface detail, illuminating regularly while always keeping the end point in mind. Nowhere is this more important than in Bruckner. But first we had a short first half, consisting of a single Mozart Violin Concerto.

Mozart’s Fifth Concerto was written in 1775, when the composer was 19 years of age. The piece is simultaneously shot through with a youthful vigour and the serenity of its key, A major. Skrowaczewski encouraged the LPO into the perfect orchestral exposition, perfectly charming and articulated with perfect precision (there was the occasional casualty claimed by the high horn parts, though). There was no feeling of settling down into the music, instead we were straight into Mozart’s heavenly universe; a shame that Hahn took a little time to match her accompanists’ expertise, then. Her tone in fortes could seem somewhat strained (including in the central Adagio) and it was not until later in the first movement that one felt that soloist and conductor were truly on the same page. The cadenza showed off Hahn’s expert stopping without actually resulting in a riveting experience; and it has to be admitted that there were several occasions that the ear was led to the orchestral accompaniments (which under many conductors might appear workaday) over Hahn’s solo workings.

Again it was the orchestra that shone in the Adagio, projecting an intimacy that just eluded Hahn. The finale was better, with more to enjoy through a higher level of engagement from the soloist. It was the so-called “Turkish” elements that provided the most fun, with nice bass thwacks from the lower strings. The encore (surely not, with Bruckner 7 still to go? was my initial reaction) was a beautifully presented Adagio from Bach’s G minor Sonata for Solo Violin, BWV1001. Hahn sounded fully at home here; it was, despite my doubts, the perfect way to close the first part of the concert.

The Bruckner was remarkable, a reading shot through with both energy and intelligence. It was interesting to see David Pyatt as Guest Principal horn (he has been principal at the LSO since 1998), leading a section that shone. Skrowaczewski’s tempi were swift in general, resulting in a perfect sense of flow. The performance was shot through with a textural awareness that consistently fascinated the ear. Phrases were shaped beautifully (none more so than the initial cello and horn ascent and the ensuing cello paragraph). The opening of the great Adagio (the tribute to Wagner, with its prominent parts for four Wagner tubas) was gorgeously translucent. If the strings didn’t glow, it was a close thing – the thought did shoot through my mind that had this been the Philharmonia, this would have been truly great – and there was some rather shrill high violin work. In compensation came the Wagner tubas, as creamy and distinct as one could wish for, and throughout all of this movement there was a real feeling of the inexorable. The inclusion of the cymbal crash (totally unapologetic and huge) was the only moment that sounded a bit crass.

Perhaps the Scherzo was the finest movement, its speed and clarity shadowed by a turbulent undercurrent; emphatic brass underscored the prevailing menace. A special mention for the trumpet section here, led by Paul Beniston. The finale seemed for once the perfect way to end. Perhaps predictably, Skrowaczewski’s reading was sprightly, emphasising the angular nature of the thematic material. Everything was splendidly controlled, from bass pizzicati through expertly counted silences (it sounds obvious, but how many conductors rush them?) and simply gorgeous balancing of brass chords. The coda was perfectly paced.

I find it difficult to believe that Skrowaczewski is approaching 90. He is small of stature yet seems to contain within him boundless energy, and this aura of energy extends itself to his players. To say that mobility is not an issue is an understatement; the moment-to-moment issues were expertly and deftly communicated by gestures honed over a lifetime.

Frederick Harris’ biography of Skrowaczewski, Seeking the Infinite, looks fascinating and is now part of my Christmas list: see the review on the Bruckner Journal website.

Colin Clarke

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