Prom 60 – Professional sounding Mozart-Bruckner Concert lacks excitement

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Prom 60. Mozart, Bruckner, David Fray (piano), Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 30.9.2011 (GD)

Mozart        Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K503
Bruckner    Symphony No. 8 in C minor

 Sir Donald Tovey, the great English composer and writer on music, considered K503 to be an absolute paradigm of the Classical concerto form, in his words the ‘locus classicus’ of that tradition. The majestic introduction in Mozart’s most festive key of C major is the most extensive he composed in concerto form in the orchestral ritornello. As Tovey noted, at the height of the opening C major pageant, the music, venturing into different registers of C major, and G major, is moving ineluctably  forward, in ‘Olympian’ tone, in preparation for some event. Tovey saw it as the perfect setting for the entry of a chorus singing the psalm Dixit Dominus.

I didn’t hear much of this festive majesty, anticipation,  and brilliance tonight. Jaap van Zweden used a relatively large orchestra with four double basses; and although the timpanist used hard sticks on what looked like ‘period’ kettle-drums they didn’t register the right degree of dynamic impact. This was not helped by peculiarly recessed trumpets; those brilliant C major  fanfares went for virtually nothing. Of course some of this lack of clarity was to do with the cavernous acoustic of the Albert Hall, although, as David Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra demonstrated a couple of nights ago in a Prom which included the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, if the orchestral balance is right such classical timbres can be heard in the Albert Hall.  But, apart from the problems with audibility and balance, van Zweden’s conducting was a little four-square throughout the concerto. It all sounded quite adequate and professional – more than adequate in the second movement with some beautiful concertante woodwind playing interweaving ever new harmonic modulations with the solo piano.

Overall the young French pianist David Fray played well and very accurately in terms of rhythmic control and handling of transitions, especially in the first movement. But by the time we reached the elaborate development section beginning in the remote key of E minor, Fray sounded a tad perfunctory, especially in his intertwining  arpeggio figurations with woodwind, which become increasingly varied in tonal contrast and colouring. Here I was thinking of the superb richness and contrast in the playing of Maria João Pires in the same recent Prom mentioned above with David Zinman, also a Mozart piano concerto, the last one ( K 595).  Also and quite often, I had little sense of pianist and conductor being totally in accord, in dialogue with each other, as was so evident with  Pires and Zinman.

Fray played the first movement cadenza written by the late Austrian pianist Friedrich Gulda, which seemed as good as most…no original cadenza having survived. The F major ‘Andante’, as mentioned above contained some beautiful concertente woodwind playing. But otherwise, and good as it was, I found that the lack of real dialogue between pianist and conductor deprived this exquisite music of its essential concerto intimacy and engagement. The concluding ‘Allegretto’ rondo, with its echoes of the ‘Gavotte’ from the Idomeneo ballet music,  gained from being played in a tempo which didn’t drag. And again the central section of woodwind and piano dialogue worked well. But this did not really compensate for the above-mentioned lack of dialogue.

Van Zweden conducted a well thought out and well played rendition of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. He was the concert master of the Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1979 to 1995, and must have heard and participated in, many Bruckner performances. Indeed I was reminded of Bernard Haitink’s sober and objectively restrained Bruckner. Haitink, as principal conductor at the Concertgebouw,  conducted the symphony (and all of Bruckner’s symphonies)  so many times with the orchestra that his legacy made its mark  even when he wasn’t conducting them.  Van Zweden had the musical sense to play the first movement as it is marked, Allegro moderato,  moderately fast and with movement. The huge build up here to the mid-movement climax with the opening unison theme intoned with brass blazing out tutti in sharply modulated variants of C minor was well managed, but it lacked the rock-like hold on the ground bass rhythm. It also lacked a sense sheer dynamic impact essential to the apocalyptic tones of this drama. (I experienced the overwhelming, almost terrifying impact of this massive statement a couple of years ago in a performance of the symphony with the LPO and Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducting.) I also missed the sustained sotto voce mystery and intensity which follows the climax with pp trumpets repeating the opening theme over ppp tremolando violas ( 270/271 in the Eulenberg score of the Novak edition). As I said, everything tonight was well played, balanced, with convincing tempi, but to my ears that essential dramatic ( even sublime) element was lacking. Tonight’s programme note writer talks of the first movement ending with an ‘awesome thundering of C minor that then creeps away into a hushed and sinister silence’. Tonight despite the ‘thundering’ C minor being well timed, played etc, I felt none of this awe or ‘hush of sinister silence’.

Rather than the Allegro moderato asked for by the composer, van Zweden opted for a much faster tempo in the second movement scherzo. Although it goes against the score marking, a fast tempo here can work. It gives an element of contrast to a symphony which can sound like four measured or slow movements. Bruckner conductors as varied as Carl Schuricht and Eduard van Beinum (the previous chief conductor of the Concertgebouw before Haitink) have successfully deployed swift tempi here. All this sounded very exciting, with superbly inflected brass pronouncements. Also van Zweden managed the transition to the slower trio, with its A flat upper Austrian sounding 2/4 meter, convincingly.

Bruckner took the trouble to mark the great D flat major Adagio, ‘Feierlich langsam, doch nicht schleppend’, meaning, slow and solemn, but not dragging. Van Zweden mostly managed this sense of a great slow movement with a measured sense of movement quite well. But I could hardly hear any delineation of the Tristan-like pulse which subtends the movement. Also, the mid-movement 3/4 ostinato/crescendo build-up was well paced – never any sign of acceleration or rushing – but the underlying bass pulse, connected to the Act Two Tristan pulse, was lacking depriving this cardinal passage of its ineluctable and monumental impact.   The great and ultimate C major climax with cymbals and triangle made its impact, although it didn’t ‘arrive’ as impressively as it did for Nezet-Seguin, and recent performances from Blomstedt and Boulez. The spine-tingling impact of such cardinal moments depends not so much on the power of the statement itself as on the timing, unfolding  and unleashing of its impact. The gradually descending coda was well moulded and sustained with a particularly memorable quasi horn cadenza.

The long finale mostly went quite well. But here and there there was a distinct lack of structural line; a feeling of sectionalisation, rather than any sense of a coherent whole. The gigantic C minor tutti ostinato sequence before the development proper, with trenchant brass and timpani rhythms and accompanying cross-rhythm counterpoint in the strings lacked the majestic menace of a  Nezet-Seguin, Klemperer, or Horenstein. Much of the coda was impressive in pacing and dynamics. But it sounded as though it had been implanted as it were, added on,  with no real sense of developing from the movements previous and copious thematic material. No sense of being revealed, unleashed after a long symphonic traversal.

Van Zweden chose the 1890 revised Novak edition of the score, which is coming back into favour with conductors. Important renditions from the likes of Harnoncourt, Albrecht and Janowski have preferred the Novak edition to the Hass, and Haitink, who was a long time a champion of the Hass edition, has recently come over to the Novak as more in line with the composer’s intentions. There is little doubt that Hass recomposed from some of the fragments left by the composer, and with regard to the impressive C minor ostinato passage in the last movement  mentioned above, the Novak edition, which tails off with a decrescendo figure on solo  timpani sounds far more ‘modern’ and  in tune with the monumental ruggedness of the movement. The Haas edition, which introduces a rather sentimental violin figure here as as a bridge passage to the next section, sounds contrived in comparison.

I said that van Zweden uses the Novak revised 1890 edition. Well, this true, but not quite. In the heroic recapitulation  the opening ascending rhythmic figure is initially punctuated by brass and timpani. This rhythmic theme is repeated twice, in ff woodwind and strings, without timpani punctuations at 460, in the Eulenburg and Peters score. The third time the theme is repeated van Zweden reverted to the older Schalk brothers’ edition adding timpani punctuations.  The late Deryck Cooke called these older editions ‘abominable bowdlerisations’. Actually this older emendation didn’t do much to detract from the performance; some may even have found that it added to the agitated impetus of the sequence. But it would be interesting to know why van Zweden opted for the interpolation of an older, and now discredited editing detail? Van Zweden’s deployment of non antiphonal violins did not do much in matters of orchestral clarity, and matters of clarity and audibility were not helped by the Albert Hall’s cavernous acoustic, which can swamp even a Bruckner symphony comprising over a hundred players!

Geoff Diggines