Anderszewski, Berlioz, And Strategically Lowered Expectations

Mozart, Berlioz: Piotr Anderszewski (piano) Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, Nikolaj Znaider (conductor) Gasteig Philharmonic Hall, Munich, 28.04.2010 (JFL)

The deal was this: Mozart’s d-minor Piano Concerto and Bruckner Seventh Symphony. Piotr Anderszewski for the Mozart, David Zinman principally for the Bruckner, and the Munich Philharmonic to do the orchestral legwork… something to truly look forward to. But David Zinman had to cancel and no replacement willing to step in that could do both, Bruckner and Mozart, was found. So Nikolaj Znaider was asked to trade in the violin for a baton, as he has been doing quite a bit, as of late. Since his repertoire is still very limited, Bruckner had to go and be replaced, much to the chagrin of the Bruckner-loving audience, with Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, a works Znaider-the-conductor already knows by heart.

Whether Nikolaj Znaider, at the audible beginning of his conducting career, should be leading a top tier orchestra instead of earning his keep with the likes of Würzburg Philharmonic or the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, is a valid question… especially when it comes to an orchestra like the Munich Philharmonic, who all too willingly meets modest conductors at their level.

The premonition of mediocrity wasn’t just a hunch. Nikolaj Znaider has been conducting the Munich Philharmonic before; most recently in a program of Mozart and Tchaikovsky Symphonies. The Mozart was so atrocious that, in ill health anyway, I was compelled to leave at intermission. A local colleague who stayed (and, not knowing I had been there, referred to said Mozart symphony as “making you want to run away”) assured me that the Tchaikovsky was considerably better than the Mozart… but then, it would have been almost impossible not to be. So what did that mean for the Mozart Concerto KV466 tonight? Ever the seasoned pessimist, I decided to anticipate disaster; which is the concert-going analogue to the George W. Bush approach to successful speeching: Lower expectations as much as possible, then hit it out of the park just by not completely gaffing.

That was a good idea, as it turned out, and the reward was a perfectly entertaining Mozart Concerto—certainly more enjoyable than my most recent Mozart Piano Concerto experience with the Grimaud-Bergen combo. Ignoring the unintentionally interesting low brass sticking out of the ensemble in the opening movement, the deftly manhandled first movement turned out rather entertaining and its rotund attempts at explosiveness were not altogether futile. Whether the slightly heavy, belabored approach was Piotr Anderszewski’s ideal is a different matter; but he played along in his own way, without undue fussiness and a hefty grip. To all this, Znaider waved his arms about in perfect sync and harmony, doing no harm where much harm could have been done.

The Mozart-apprehension was overcome, but Berlioz-trepidation still reigned… in part due to Berlioz, not just Znaider.  Again I had my deliberately lowered expectations exceeded. The Symphonie fantastique started out solid, which is to say: not bad per se, but not the stuff that makes you go out and attend a concert for. The first two movements only offered a generally pleasant ooompfish sound, somewhere between thick and homogenous, but in a good way. “Scène aux Champs” was a true summer pleasantry, with overtones of a meaningless Pastorale… but then the gimmicks came out, and with it the spice of the evening. The dialogue of cor anglais and oboe (peasants playing their pipes to call their cows home…) doesn’t just have the oboe off-stage, as prescribed, but coming (very effectively) from behind the audience, which in the Philharmonic Hall of the Gasteig is about 30 feet above the orchestra level. The flute and oboe recalling the musical idée fixe in that movement (standing in for the actress that Berlioz chased and would eventually marry) did the same… and the four kettle drum rolls suggesting the ensuing thunderstorm were placed left and right outside the hall.

Did anyone ever say that exaggeration was not a legitimate tool of musical interpretation, or that that wasn’t in fact the key to successful Berlioz? The preceding bits had already been above average, but with the lovably unsubtle, robust “Marche au Supplice” and the amusingly (this time intentionally) off-kilter woodwind chatter of the now distorted idée fixe from the final movement (“Songe d’une Nuit de Sabbat”), there was a definite hint of being captivated in the air. Which, with however many quibbles one gets there, spells an above average night at the orchestra.

Jens F. Laurson