An Odd Assemblage of Works by Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker

07/10/2017

Mozart, Walton, and Kodály: Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Amihai Grosz (viola), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 6.10.2017. (MB)

Mozart – Piano Concerto no.27 in B-flat major, KV 595

Walton – Viola Concerto

Kodály – Suite: Háry János

Try as I might, I could not work out the idea behind the programming of this concert. In practice, it brought us the Berlin Philharmonic – and Simon Rattle – at their best after the interval, in works by Walton and Kodály, whereas far and away the best music came before that interval. Not that there was anything wrong with the orchestra’s playing, or indeed with Rattle’s conducting, in Mozart’s final piano concerto, but there was something of a sense of compromise, as if orchestra and conductor – arguably soloist too – were pulling slightly in different directions. There was none, or very little, of the mannerism that has often so disfigured Rattle’s conducting of Classical music; that, after all, is hardly Mitsuko Uchida’s style. But a very small orchestra – only eight first violins – sounded a little plain of string tone, with the true orchestral delights coming from a fabulous woodwind section. The first movement lacked the autumnal quality puritans tell us we – and it – should eschew, but nor was it especially vernal; indeed, even Uchida’s playing, although excellent, had a degree of neutrality to it. That worked rather well in the development section, when her passagework sounded entwined around ravishing oboe and bassoon solos. Indeed, the orchestra had sounded enlivened as soon as she entered. And Uchida’s was a distinguished performance overall, as one would have expected. The slow movement was beautifully shaped, never unduly moulded. It spoke and sang with simplicity, however secondary. Here, Uchida continued to ornament her lines, but far more so than earlier on: ever tasteful, indeed ever delightful. The finale was finely articulated from all concerned, Uchida’s command of line especially noteworthy. There was much to commend, much to enjoy; comparisons can wait until another day, or indefinitely.

The Berlin Philharmonic sounded like a different orchestra after the interval; of course one would not expect Mozart to sound like Walton, or vice versa, but it was more than that. Richly Romantic, there was no denying this sound’s ‘fit’ to the repertoire. (Interestingly, and to my mind highly surprisingly, Karl Böhm had conducted its Berlin Philharmonic premiere in 1958, with William Primrose, whilst the 1961-2 revision, heard here, received its first – and until now, only – performance from the orchestra in 1969 from Giusto Cappone and John Barbirolli). Just two weeks earlier, we had heard Máté Szűcs in the Bartók Viola Concerto; now it was the turn of the orchestra’s other principal viola player, Amihai Grosz. If the Bartók is far from my favourite piece by that composer, comparison with Walton’s concerto, in whichever version, does the latter no favours. If, once again, I found myself far from convinced by a work that has a tendency to sound like bits of film music stuck together, then it was not for want of trying from Grosz, the orchestra, or Rattle. The vaguely jazzy sections and those that sound somewhat like Prokofiev are perhaps the most convincing parts of the first movement; they certainly sounded splendid in themselves here. Grosz’s double-stopping, moreover, was to die for. Stravinskian rhythmic precision made its mark in the second movement. All concerned made a great effort to unify the work in its finale. Grosz’s lyricism here – and not just his – made a gorgeous sound indeed. His Reger encore, however – I am not sure offhand from which of the Suites it came – was very much more to my taste. It was lovely to see Rattle sneak in at the back of the stage and sit at the piano to hear it too.

I tried too with Kodály’s Háry Janos Suite. Perhaps trying was the problem, for it is fun enough in its way, if perhaps a little laboured in the fifth movement. The Prelude is in many ways impressive – and certainly proved so in performance, lower strings offering more than a hint of Bluebeard Bartók (in which I had heard them earlier this year). There are worse models, far worse models! The festive quality to the Vienna Musical Clock movement was relished. And violist Naoko Shimizu played her opening to the third movement, the ‘Song’, with a beauty of tone that, in context, hinted at a link, however, strained, with Walton. It is always fun – well, nearly always – to hear the cimbalom too, and we most certainly did on this occasion, if rather less imaginatively (writing, not performance) than I had earlier this week in Jörg Widmann’s Zweites Labyrinth. The Berlin brass’s performance was truly outstanding in ‘The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon’, and so on. It was an enjoyable performance in itself; quite what its connection with Walton or Mozart might have been remained obscure.

Mark Berry

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