A Somewhat Disappointing Programme from Philippe Jordan and the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven, Liszt, Brahms: Simon Trpčeski (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Philippe Jordan (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London. 3. 5. 2012 (GD)

Beethoven: ‘Leonore’ Overture No.3, Op.72a
Liszt: Piano Concerto No.2 in A
Brahms: Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

Beethoven’s ‘Leonore’ Overture No.3, as a revision of No.2, has always presented  a problem in the context of  Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. Beethoven soon realised that it would be absurd as the opera’s overture, being far too long,  dramatic and monumental as the prelude to the quasi-comic duet between Jaquino and Marzelline on which the curtain rises. And of course he wrote the dramatically terse and relatively short Fidelio overture as a far more suitable prelude.   Until recently ‘Leonore’ No. 3 was often inserted into Act Two, just before the  opera’s final triumphant chorus. However, there is a sense that, thus placed, it rather delays the continuity of the drama. So now it is more usually performed as a concert overture.   The overture’s length and structural complexity (more pre-figuring a dramatic tone poem, as  has been suggested) make it a difficult work for any conductor. Tonight Jordan conducted a performance  that was very well-balanced in terms of orchestral clarity. In some ways I had the sense that he was specifically conducting a concert performance with no particular reference to the overture as part of the opera. Of course all the  themes that relate to the opera were there. But after the introductory tutti chord I had little sense of  sustained and ominous doom  in the figure which foreshadows Florestan’s dungeon aria with its mysterious modulations from B minor and A flat.   Also there was little sense of awe invoked in the first tutti with its great orchestral crashes of single chords sustained in four bars. The two trumpet calls, signalling the arrival of the justice minister to investigate the nefarious crimes of the monster Rocco, were effectively played off-stage as directed in the opera. But  in the underlying and following passage I totally missed the sense of gradual contrast, in mood and tone, initiated by the remote G flat, leading to G major of the song of thanks. The great and triumphant presto  coda, with its runs of chromatic scales and terrific fff  climax on a chord of the minor ninth – fff is a rare dynamic marking in Beethoven – were all executed accurately but I missed the sheer drama and tension of the passage. It was all a little too nicely balanced and played. I thought of the way the heart almost skipped a beat when Toscanini used to conduct this overture. Tovey called it the ‘the grandest overture ever written’.  I heard little of this tonight.

Trpčeski gave a suitably virtuoso rendition of Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto. There were plenty of dramatic gestures and some effective rubato, totally in keeping with the work. But Trpčeski never indulged in the kind of over-pedalling we sometimes  hear in Liszt. Jordan and the orchestra were on very good form and provided the pianist with convincing accompaniment. Indeed, at times there was  a real rapport between soloist and conductor, exceeding ‘mere’ accompaniment. The transition from the opening Adagio sostenuto assai, with its bass growlings and dotted rhythms was particularly arresting, as was the Allegro agitato, developing into a 6/8 gallop in E flat minor. The central and contrasting Allegro moderato, an idyllic nocturne evolving from the concerto’s opening theme, sounded particularly rapt and poignant. The Marziale un poco meno, with its stomping  brass rhythms, had the right sense of developing from the brooding opening theme. And the Allegro animato  lead-up to the brilliant coda was executed with scintillating energy. Overall, however, my reservations are not  so much to do  with this particular interpretation, which was generally  excellent, but more with  the concerto itself. For me, as with much Liszt, there  is a kind of surface brilliance, the  stomping Marziale theme  exuding a kind of hollow bombast, and the contrasting lyrical sections come very close to sentimental schmaltz. That’s my view but there are many who find much more in this concerto and Liszt’s music in general.  In a delightful encore Trpčeski  joined up with Philharmonia’s leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay in an arrangement of a Macedonian folk tune, replete with  what  sounded like  vivacious Gypsy rhythms.

Jordan’s rendition of Brahms’s First Symphony was not without its merits. He obtained a welcomed  mediation between  instrumental balance  and lucidity of tone. The opening Un poco sostenuto sounded very ‘sustained’ with not a note of rigidity. The afore-mentioned clarity certainly came off in the Allegro, which can sometimes sound turgid and dull. The difficult C minor cross rhythms in the strings were absolutely clear in their execution despite Jordan’s decision to deploy non antiphonal violins.   But this music  needs more than mere clarity of execution. There was here, and throughout the symphony, a certain lack of dramatic charge. Also there was something missing in the superb contrasts of tone, as in the first  section of the development  where the tone darkens from  C flat to E flat minor. In this particular passage a plaintive oboe figure leads to dialogue in the woodwind and mysterious, magisterial  cloud-like chords on muted pp  trumpets, subtended by a  pp, but  ominous timpani figure.  In this performance everything was ‘there’ but it all sounded rather bland with little sense of being  an integral part of a great unfolding symphonic drama.   This sequence acts as the preparation for the recapitulation of the first allegro  subject, now furiously ablaze in tutti C minor, based on a relentless four-figure rhythm  secured in the bass and drums.  Jordan  totally failed to realize the sustained intensity of the passage, this  exacerbated by the introduction of a huge ritenuto, then a long accelerando  at the initial  lead-up to the climax. I was surprised Jordan deployed this kind of delayed action mannerism, associated with older, more wilful conductors. No doubt it was planned to add extra suspense before the unleashing of the climax’s full intensity. Sadly, however, it had the opposite effect, sounding contrived, and at odds with Brahms’s sustained symphonic drama.   .

The Andante sostenuto came off quite well in terms of tone and phrasing, but it wasn’t sufficiently ‘sustained’. Furthermore, I  would have  welcomed more of a sense of movement and flow. And I am not quite  sure why Jordan introduced a sudden  diminuendo just before the concluding florid passages on solo violin.      The Allegretto grazioso went quite well, if sounding somewhat bland at times. And the dark drama of the C minor introduction to the finale sounded suitably brooding with the chorale theme on woodwind and lower brass well integrated. The wonderful transition to the light of C major, with the glorious horn melody was well articulated; Jordan emphasising the horns, which don’t really need emphasising at this point.

The finale went well, with every orchestral detail audible. And the great presto  coda, with its triumphant peroration of themes and the glorious tutti statement of the choral theme – ‘the most solemn moment in the whole symphony’ for Tovey – benefitted by being played in tempo  and not ponderously drawn out as it often is. Full marks here,  and throughout,  for the sensitive and integrated timpani playing of John Chimes,  who was temporarily ‘on loan’ from the BBC Symphony Orchestra.     Although there was plenty of welcome clarity of detail in Jordan’s reading I missed that ultimate sense of drama, struggle, and final jubilation, heard in the very greatest performances. Despite the fact that  I was sitting in an ideal position in the stalls, I didn’t always hear the sonorous weight of the orchestra, especially in the coda. This applied especially to the string section which lacked a certain warmth and glow. But this  may have been partly due to the  generally cavernous acoustic of the Festival Hall.

Geoff Diggines