Grieg in Heels, Sibelius in Dire Straits

GermanyGermany Britten, Sibelius, Grieg: Khatia Buniatishvili (piano), Paavo Järvi (conductor), Munich Philharmonic, Philharmonic Hall Gasteig, Munich, 29.4.2012 (JFL)

Britten: Simple Symphony
Grieg: Piano Concerto
Sibelius: Symphony No.1

Played by the Munich Philharmonic under Paavo Järvi on a Sunday morning, Benjamin Britten’s “Simple Symphony” op.4 for string orchestra sounded like a big blob of music. For one, it doesn’t strike me as a piece well suited for the character of the orchestra. An agile, edgy chamber orchestra might just salvage this youthful clunker written for student orchestra, but that’s not a style the Philharmonic can easily emulate at their best, much less so ante meridiem. And so the Simple Symphony sounded as tired as the alliterative movement titles: “Boisterous Bourrée”, “Playful Pizzicato”, “Sentimental Sarabande”, and “Frolicsome Finale”. Really? “Frolicsome Finale”? Let me have a go at it: At least the superficial sweetness of the serene slow movement, and Britten’s humble honesty about his recycled rhapsody of a school suite clumsily cobbled from drafts dating a dozen years back were enjoyable enough.

At a couple of minutes, the Simply Symphony might be pleasant; as it is, it lasts trice as long as the music it contains. For all the disappointment, there was the glimmer of hope that Paavo Järvi had chosen this piece so that he might have more time to rehearse Sibelius’ First Symphony. Perhaps so, but the performance did not suggest it.

available at Amazon
J.Sibelius, Symphonies 1 & 3,
P.Inkinen, New Zealand SO

Since World War II, continental Europe is a Sibelian wasteland. Especially in the German musical realm Sibelius is ignored—in good part due to the particularly ignorant diatribes of Theodor Adorno (with René Leibowitz as his footman). For all the classical music glories of the region, those persistent, dogged areas of ignorance are hard to fathom and harder still to excuse. The argument for Sibelius as (one of) the greatest symphonist(s) since Beethoven would fall on deaf (at best bemused) ears in the countries he has been written about as an “amateurish” proponent of the “asceticism of impotence” (Adorno) or outright “le plus mauvais compositeur du monde” (Leibowitz).

The ability to play and listen to Sibelius has declined precipitously in continental Europe, with only a few islands of Sibelius reception exceptions probing this rule. Karajan made a few, limited but excellent, forays into Sibelius territory in Berlin, as did the Russian-educated Commander of the Order of the British Empire Kurt Sanderling. Lorin Maazel recorded an excellent symphony cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic in the late 60s. Those aside, there is not a continental European orchestra to be found among the 28 that have recorded the Sibelius symphonies. Sibelius is a Anglo-Nordic affair and unless Simon Rattle in Berlin or Jukka-Pekka Saraste in Cologne do something about it, one has to wait for guest conductors to bring the composer to German orchestras… and hope for the best.

Paavo Järvi and the Munich Philharmonic might have justified some of that hope, with a performance that occasionally hinted at the promise of idiomatic Sibelius. But the audience wouldn’t have it. From the first notes of the cough-riddled clarinet solo – sultry and soft as butter courtesy Alexandra Gruber – the audience proved inattentive, unwilling or incapable of getting into that spellbinding element, that Nordic vortex of Sibelius’ stark and gently searing world. Earlier leavers, exit alarms (or else the loudest haywire hearing aid ever), and an attention-grabbing case of fainting did their best to keep Sibelius at the fringe; excited but shrill violins, slipshod ensemble work, and a distinct lack of that staggered, nebulous depth, the insinuations and allegories of notes so typical for Sibelius did the rest. If Sibelius barely survived, it wasn’t for lack of loudness, though – Järvi happily cranked the orchestra up to 11.

Where other young pianists use the “I-can’t-pedal-in-heels” excuse to appear barefoot (because it’s an either-or, apparently), Khatia Buniatishvili seems to attempt to prove the opposite, pedaling her way through the Grieg Piano Concerto in 8 inch heels. Whose point was made by her performance is hard to say. The heavy romantic approach to Grieg as ‘Rachmaninoff-for-smaller-hands’ checked all the expectation-boxes of the romantic piano concerto, but my tastes must have moved on, as I was all the more reminded of how wonderful Rudolf Buchbinder performed the same concerto with the same orchestra (under Christian Thielemann) three years ago: With classical cool and near-Mozartean lightness. In the first movement Buniatishvili favored enthusiasm over accuracy. Her lusciousness was put to gorgeous effect in the Adagio, and her pianissimos in the third movement – in danger of being drowned out as they were – showed that she has something to say in every dynamic range. The encore – Liszt’s third Liebestraum – fit the slightly unimaginative romantic bill… too much, too heavy, too sweet so early in the day.

Jens F. Laurson