Markus Stenz Excels In an All-Too-Rare London Appearance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart, Turnage, Strauss: Lawrence Power (viola), Markus Stenz (conductor), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, 19. 10. 2011 (GDn)

Mozart: Symphony No.41 in C major, ‘Jupiter’ K. 551
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Viola Concerto “On Opened Ground”
Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra

Markus Stenz must be one of the most versatile conductors on the international circuit. His visits to London are all too rare, but concertgoers in the capital are most likely to remember him for his stint as Principal Conductor of the London Sinfonietta in the mid 1990s. He then left for foreign shores, making a name for himself in Australia at the helm of the Melbourne Symphony. Then came a few years of opera, at the top European houses. And now he conducts the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne, perhaps the ideal job for him, as it encompasses music from all periods, and also makes him the de facto conductor of the Cologne Opera, where the Gürzenich Orchestra is the house band.

All of which is great news for the Rhinelanders, but less so for London audiences, who have heard little from Stenz in the last decade, the period in which he has clearly come to an impressive artistic maturity. The programme for this evening’s concert demonstrated that versatility remains the hallmark of his work, and the sheer quality of the results left us in no doubt that he has become a major talent in the years since he last made regular appearances here. The three pieces – by Mozart, Turnage and Strauss – were all presented at the sort of standard you would expect of specialists in the Classical, Modern and Romantic repertoires respectively. But Stenz can do it all, and in each piece brought out the very best of this orchestra.

It is a joy to watch Stenz conduct Mozart. He doesn’t use a baton here and only rarely gives a beat. Instead, he dances round the podium, energising the music and enthusing the players with his sense of the lightness and grace of the music. The results were magic. This ‘Jupiter’ was wholly devoid of pedantry or Classical mannerism. It was nimble and elegant, always on the move, and with the weight of each chord and texture ideally balanced. Concentrating on the grace rather than the drama meant that the second movement became the heart of the work, and this is where it all came together. But the finale was good too – none of the excessive drama or histrionics that modern instrument performances can produce. Stenz made this last movement float along, but with a precise rhythmic structure that acknowledged the symphonic status of this, Mozart’s final symphonic conclusion.

I’m a late convert to Mark-Anthony Turnage. All my previous experiences of his music had been of accomplished orchestral writing being frustratingly drowned out by a drum kit or over-amplified electric guitar. But Anna Nicole changed my mind, demonstrating (to me at least) that the diverse popular styles that he references can work in a classical context and not just get in the way. So it was welcome this evening to have a chance to re-visit one of his early scores, the viola concerto “On Opened Ground” from 2000/1. This is a more refined work than most of the pieces for which Turnage is famous. The popular idioms take a back seat, and instead he writes a work that sits comfortably into the English tradition. It owes a lot to Walton’s Viola Concerto, but there is more to it than that. Walton on acid perhaps. A large orchestra is used, but sensitively and imaginatively. I was particularly impressed that Turnage’s orchestration could stand up to comparison with the Mozart that preceded it. Lawrence Power is the ideal interpreter for this work. It was actually written for Yuri Bashmet, who I suspect would gave it a more guttural reading. But Turnage expects the viola to sing, and that is just what Power is good at. There is plenty of energy in his sound, and enough bass in the lower strings that you know he is not playing a violin. But he revels in the bluesy melodic lines that Turnage spins for the soloist, and sails above the orchestra, large as it is, without a problem. And the crass jazz interjections? Well, at one point the snare drum starts playing off-beats with brushes. Then, just as my heart was sinking, the piece ended. What a tease!

Also sprach Zarathustra is an excellent orchestral show-piece, but only if you have an excellent orchestra. Fortunately then, the LPO were on fine form, and delivered a performance that was as good as any in recent memory. Markus Stenz re-appeared after the interval a different man. Now conducting with a baton, giving a clear beat and driving the music. All of which is, of course, exactly what this score requires. The results were passionate and turbulent. The orchestra here was just magnificent; every section has a moment in the spotlight and each made the most of it. Special mentions should go to the flute and bassoon soloists, and the horn, trumpet and trombone sections. To take just one of many examples, those pianissimo chords from the trombones at the end need to be exactly in time and very carefully tuned, but they rarely are. In this performance they were exactly right, and with ideal tone colour and balance too. A perfect end to an excellent concert.

Gavin Dixon