Rattle and the LSO Pose Some Unanswered Questions

03/07/2016

Ives, Beethoven, Rachmaninov: Krystian Zimerman (piano), London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 30.6.2016 (CS)

Ives: The Unanswered Question
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.4 in G
Rachmaninov: Symphony No.2 in E minor Op.27

The first half of this concert by the London Symphony Orchestra was conceived as a single, seamless entity, with the gentle, densely voiced chords which open Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in G presented as a reply to Charles Ives’ ‘unanswered’ question.  A nice idea, perhaps, and there is a harmonic link between the two as Ives concludes with a return to the strings’ widely spaced chord of G major.  But, in the event, I wasn’t convinced by the realisation.

With the orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle arranged on the platform, double basses raised in an imposing line centre-rear, and soloist Krystian Zimerman seated at the keyboard, the four flutes which provide the answer to the muted trumpet’s ‘Perennial Question of Existence’ were disparately positioned: one, standing, amid the main woodwind section, two stage-left and one stage-right.  The result was that their increasingly animated search for the invisible answer seemed less a collective endeavour or strife and more an agitated, existential cry.  It was hard to focus on the conversation between questioner and answerers, against the muted, sustained pianissimo of the off-stage strings, with the body of the orchestra and a Steinway in one’s vision, though closing one’s eyes was of course an option.

Ives’ score explains that the strings represent ‘The Silence of the Druids – who Know, Hear and See Nothing’; after the ‘Fighting Answerers’ have disappeared, ‘The Question’ is posed for the last time, and the ‘Silences’ of the strings are heard beyond in ‘Undisturbed Solitude’.  Except that on this occasion, there was no ‘undisturbed solitude’ for, after only a brief pause, Zimerman broke the stillness with Beethoven’s dolce chords.  There was no time for the silence to register, for us to absorb its mysteries.  And, to my ear, Zimerman’s tender tone seemed at odds with the anxiety and ambiguity of Ives’ ending, though I recognise that many will have found the piano’s ‘response’ to the trumpet’s conundrum to be consoling.

Once the concerto was underway it was evident that this would be an intimate, lyrical interpretation.  The opening call-and-response between soloist and orchestra was characterised by restraint and gentleness; the LSO were wonderfully hushed in their initial statements and the rhythms flexible.  But, if Zimerman (who did not perform from memory) had determined to focus on Beethoven’s poetry, at times ethereal, then Rattle had other ideas and there were some surges of pace which seemed misaligned with the piano’s prevailing introspection and equanimity.  Even the first-movement cadenza was understated, though Zimerman shaped the fleet figurations into real melody.

The Andante con moto followed without a pause.  Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny, in On the Proper Performance of All of Beethoven’s Works for Piano (1842), suggested that this movement made one think ‘of an antique dramatic and tragic scene, and the player must feel with what movingly lamenting expression his solo must be played in order to contrast with the powerful and austere orchestral passages’.  Certainly the orchestra’s tone was fierce and gruff, even severe, in the dotted rhythm, staccato octaves that challenge the pianist, but the strings’ ensemble was not always precise.  Zimerman’s responses were expressive and serene, but more meditative than ‘pleading’.  There was great delicacy, though; the trills of the cadenza reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s image of a painting in To the Lighthouse: ‘the colour burning on a framework of steel; the light of a butterfly’s wing lying upon the arches of a cathedral.’  Whispered pianissimo recollections of the orchestra’s motif by cellos and double basses were all that remained of the ensemble’s defiance.

Beethoven sets up a ‘confrontation’ between soloist and ensemble in the Andante – often likened to Orpheus calming the Furies – and this sense of a ‘difference of opinion’ lingered in the Rondo Vivace with Zimerman concerned to emphasise the lyricism while Rattle did all he could to inject some wit.  After the strings’ mischievous introduction, which leads the music to the ‘correct’ key, the piano’s first statement of the rondo theme had grace but lacked jollity.  There’s a danger that too much self-composure can lead to characterlessness.  Rattle was eager to push the pace forward and the ensemble between soloist and orchestra was not always exact.  This performance didn’t find the right balance between intimacy and high spirits.  Others did not share my opinion, however, and Zimerman was greeted with a standing ovation.

After the interval, the LSO’s glorious playing during a committed and impassioned rendition of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony swept my earlier misgivings aside.  The raising of the double bass players, now nine, centre-rear ensured that the music was driven from the bottom, and the Largo introduction established a dark, yearning sonority.  The LSO strings played throughout with plenty of heft.  The Allegro Moderato was expansive and featured heartfelt lyricism from the strings, and just the right dash of portamento, but sometimes Rattle was a little too indulgent with the tempi, taking his time and luxuriating in the moment rather than reflecting on the overall shape of the movement; it’s fine to elongate subsidiary episodes if you also show how they all fit together.

Even Russians have sometimes wielded the knife to Rachmaninov’s prolix score, and if Rattle was committed to delivering every note – though the exposition repeat was omitted – he might have lingered less.   It was disappointing, too, that an inauthentic timpani thud on the movement’s final unison E on cellos and basses resounded.

After the breadth of the Allegro Moderato, the second movement Scherzo was notable for its forward drive and really strong rhythmic definition, to which the sumptuous cantabile episode formed a fine contrast.   Clarinetist Andrew Marriner tapped into the composer’s trademark rhapsodic mode in the Adagio and his effulgent melodicism and nuanced cantilena was appreciated by Rattle, earning Marriner a hug during the final applause.  In this movement, the orchestral colours were well-blended.  The festive march of the Allegro Vivace set off ebulliently and Rattle conjured waves of emotion; this was weighty playing.  I felt that at times the momentum was in danger of flagging, but the return of the opening step-wise theme was fittingly triumphant, and a cumulative power was generated through the symphony’s apotheosis.

Claire Seymour

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