Come some musicke: Liszt’s “Hamlet”, Brahms “Double,” Schumann’s “Spring”

Liszt, Brahms, Schumann: Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra, John Axelrod (conductor), Viviane Hagner (violin), Danjulo Ishizaka (cello), Palace of Arts, Budapest 13.5.11 (BM)

Liszt: ‘Hamlet’, symphonic poem
Brahms: Double Concerto in A minor, op. 102
Schumann: Symphony No. 1 in B major (“Spring”), op. 38

Liszt’s Hamlet deserves to be performed more often, and thanks to this anniversary year it is currently getting a little more exposure than usual. Of all of the composer’s symphonic poems, this is the one that most strongly defies classification, and indeed it was long believed to be the overture to an opera Liszt never wrote, but scholars who examined the composer’s correspondence have since established that it is much more of a character study of Ophelia and Hamlet, whom Liszt characterized as a prince “hovering between heaven and earth ­ the captive of his doubt and irresolution”, albeit one which does not allocate separate movements to individual personas, as does the Faust symphony. The orchestra, in particular the string section, were able to show off some technically flawless playing (they have no reason to play second fiddle to the Staatskapelle, as is the Dresden tradition – at least not all the time), and duly conveyed the programmatic personality contrast, even if it did not seem to be at the top of their agenda.

However, Hamlet was soon hovering in the background again, since the next piece – Brahms’ double concerto for violin and cello – was indisputably the high point of the program, thanks to the two inspired soloists. Viviane Hagner’s sensitive tone blended perfectly with the orchestra’s rich sound, and her perfect intonation and articulation were matched by cellist Danjulo Ishizaka’s virtuosity and warm timbre. Both seemed intimately familiar with the music, and on top of their game from the very first bar, while the second movement, andante, was quite overwhelming in terms of emotive force, marred perhaps only a tiny bit – although only visually – by the sight of Hagner fussing with her instrument whenever she wasn’t playing (although she may well have had good reason to). Axelrod seemed pleased with the performance – and rightly so – and quite happy to be going along for the ride.

What followed after the interval was much less exciting: a somewhat homogenized delivery of Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony, no doubt the Philharmonic’s umpteenth rendition thereof and hence played in what came across like autopilot mode, supervised by their conductor of the evening, who presided over this part of the concert without a score. His idea of an encore could hardly have been cheesier: Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no. 5, although what this selection lacked in taste the musicians made up for with verve. No offense, by the way, to this well-loved piece, but serving it up in hope of a rousing finish in a city where it is the standard fare of ensembles such as the Budapest Gypsy Orchestra on the Danube tourist boats – I don’t think so.

Interestingly enough, the most exciting piece of the evening was the soloists’ encore after the double concerto: the scherzo, marked très vif, from Ravel’s Sonata for violin and cello, aptly chosen since it has been said that the composer may have written it under the influence of Zoltán Kodály’s Duo for the same instruments, a quicksilver episode featuring double and triple meters in bracing, even bitonal, harmonic configurations, and played with brilliance and aplomb. Look out for these two fine young musicians.

Bettina Mara