Tchaikovsky and Bruckner: High Expectations, Poor Results

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Tchaikovsky, Bruckner: Janine Jansen (violin) ,London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Osmo Vänskä (conductor) , Royal Festival Hall, London, 16.11.11 (GD)

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E flat major (Romantic). 1888 version edited by Benjamin Korstvedt.

I had high expectations for the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto having heard Miss Jansen’s recent fine CD of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Also I know that Vänskä can be a fine accompanist. But, alas, tonight these expectations were soon dashed. After a rather perfunctory orchestral introduction lacking all sense of rhythmic verve and expectation, Jansen’s first obbligato flourishes were grotesquely dragged out. This solo opening should certainly register a sense of contrast, project itself, but it shouldn’t hold up the Allegro moderato line, as it did tonight. In places throughout the concerto Jansen demonstrated that she is capable of a whole range of sonorous, rich tones. But I was left wondering how much all this corresponded to Tchaikovsky’s very Russian, but wonderfully cosmopolitan, concerto? With violinists like Oistrakh and more recently Gidon Kramer one has the sense of diversity and contrast always within the concerto’s specific idiom. But none of this registered tonight. Things were not helped by Miss Jansen’s frequent tuning problems, particularly in the first movement.

Also, and contrary to what I had expected, there was little rapport between soloist and conductor. And although I have admired much of Vänskä’s conducting, both in concert and on CD, tonight he conducted in a dull rather detached manner. To give just one example out of many, the march-like polonaise tutti statements of the theme in the first movement, first heard from the soloist, lacked all power and panache. To confirm ths impression I later played the Heifetz recording with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, and what a contrast! The same passages here had resounding majestic impact like a real festive event. The second movement Andante marked Canzonetta was played rather like a rehearsal run-through, having little charm. And Jansen’s rather bright tone missed the initmate song-like mood of the music. Miss Jansen proved herself capable of amazing virtuosity in the finale, But again, in her cadenza-like recitative, before the rondo finale proper, she held up the flow of the music with unecessary allargandos and rallentandos. And in the Allegro vivacissimo of the finale I was left wondering how much her virtuoso brilliance and sudden tempo changes really corresponded to the basic symphonic design of Tchaikovsky’s music? Vänskä and the orchestra, who were not on their best form tonight, did pick up in terms of rhythmic sharpness. But again I felt no real accord between soloist and conductor.

As an encore Jansen played a suitably lyrical, relaxed and songful rendition of Alexandru Lascae’s arrangement for string orchestra of Tchaikovsky’s Melodie from his Souvenir d’un lieu cher.

Vänskä, for reasons best known to himself, used/uses the 1888 version of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony recently prepared (2004/6) for the Bruckner Gesellschaft in Vienna by American Bruckner scholar Benjamin Korstvedt. This turns out to be none other than a close adaptation of the Schalk/Lowe performing version, which was used by conductors like Furtwängler and Knappertsbusch before alternatives became available. But it has since been widely discredited as unrepresentative of Bruckner’s intentions. The fact that Bruckner sanctioned this version for performance in no way alters this. Bruckner who was notoriously equivocal when it came to emendated performing versions of his symphonies. shortly before his death in 1896 submitted to the Vienna Imperial Library the 1878/80 version, later edited for performance by Robert Haas, and Leopold Nowak as his final word on this and other symphonies. This would seem to confirm the authenticity of both the Haas and Nowak editions which have been variously performed by conductors as wide ranging and different as Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Böhm, Rosbaud and Harnoncourt. The 1888 version amounts to no less than a wholesale re-orchestration of the 1878/80 version, and the original 1874 version. The details of this are for too numerous and depressing to go into in much detail in a review. But they include some quite un-Brucknerian cymbal crashes and some equally dubious soft cymbal swishes in the coda; the use of alien sounding shrieking piccolos in the finale; a ludicrous diminuendo, with an awkward timpani figure at the end of the first statement of the scherzo; the omission of the wonderfully atmospheric pp timpani rolls at the recapitulation of the opening horn theme in the first movement; frequent quite unconvincing conjoining woodwind lead-ons in transitions; also frequent bombastic sounding timpani interpolations in the various chorale and other passages – especially in the last movement. The Scherzo is abruptly cut by 65 bars, as is the penultimate and massive tutti chorale before the coda in the finale. Korstvedt has added numerous dynamic/harmonic shifts, turns and slurs.

When Vänskä performed this edition of the symphony at a Prom last year with the Minnesota Orchestra, of which he is music director, I commented on the overall excellent playing and also the integrity of Vänskä’s conducting,. He had a sure sense of Bruckner’s measured tempo relations but never dragged, always observing the marking ‘bewegt’ (movement). Tonight the LPO was no match for the Minnesota Orchestra in terms of intonation, ensemble etc. and Vänskä’s conducting lacked the earlier performance’s integrity, possibly due to the greater rapport he has developed with the American orchestra? The second movement Andante tended to drag, and there were places in the finale where line and overall coherence were lacking. This sense of line is not helped by the 1888 version, with its cuts, unidiomatic harmonies, dynamics and orchestration. Perhaps this version should be preserved more in the logic of surviving as another version in a complete Bruckner edition – but only performed as an example of how not to play Bruckner!

Geoff Diggines