Venzago and the Berlin Symphony Visit London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Weber, Schumann, Beethoven: Berlin Symphony Orchestra (aka Konzerthausorchester Berlin), Kit Armstrong (piano), Mario Venzago (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London 25.5.2012 (Gdn)

Weber: Der Freischutz Overture
Schumann: Piano Concerto
Beethoven: Symphony No.3

Mario Venzago wants to have it both ways. He describes his interpretive approach as “post-H.I.P.”, which means bringing a selection of insights from the period instrument movement to symphony orchestra performances. That’s very fashionable these days, but it is at odds with his stage manner. Venzago wears tails, uses a very long baton, and conducts with an immaculate technique that died out in most parts a generation ago. That makes for a strange combination, but it works. He’s a communicative conductor, but not one to take things to extremes. And for London audiences, accustomed as we are to young conductors trading almost exclusively on passion and excitement, his more measured, but no less musical, approach makes for a refreshing change.

That said, he’s only a guest conductor with the Berlin Symphony, and some tensions were apparent from the start. The Freischutz Overture is a pretty high-octane opener, and it seemed the orchestra wanted to play it faster and louder than the conductor would permit. Fortunately, the result was a constructive tension, with everybody working on the same wavelength, and the orchestra giving the same energy and drama as they would in a more weighty performance, but without the extremes. There were a few rough patches – the transition from the introduction into the allegro was a bit scrappy – but on the whole this was a serviceable reading.

The young pianist Kit Armstrong was the soloist for the Schumann Concerto. His performance was promising in many ways, but his interpretation is not yet as accomplished or authoritative as this music needs. Armstrong has the notes under his fingers, although there were a few very obvious slips, and matched his dynamics and rubato skilfully to the phrase structure. But there was little spontaneity here, and some of his rubato devices bordered on affectation. He has a tendency to linger on the climax note of each phrase, just a little too long for it to feel natural. More significantly, it was clear throughout that Venzago was in charge of the tempi, especially in the transitions. Armstrong followed skilfully, but really he should have been leading. That said, the slow movement was wonderful, with Armstrong giving an unaffected and directly emotional account of the solo part. No doubt the rest will come together, and probably very soon indeed. He’s still only 20 after all. And was that one of his own compositions he played for an encore? A nice touch.

But the best of the concert came after the interval, when the orchestra gave an excellent performance of the ‘Eroica’. Venzago’s post-H.I.P. approach worked wonders here. The strings of the Berlin Symphony have impressive intonation and ensemble, so his insistence on minimal vibrato didn’t faze them at all. His tempi felt fast, especially in the second and fourth movements, suggesting he was following, or at least acknowledging, Beethoven’s controversial metronome marks. Again, this was a performance that eschewed extremes, especially of dynamics. But the orchestra made up for this with impressively characterful brass playing, and with a wide array of articulations from every section. So the punched chords at the opening were quieter than usual, but it didn’t matter because the sheer attack on each of them was enough to launch the symphony.

Venzago did allow himself one extravagance. Each time Beethoven builds up to a thematic statement in the outer movements, Vanzago tried to create the effect of appearing out of nothing and building into a weighty tutti. There are quite a lot of these instances in the ‘Eroica’, so the surprise quickly wore off. But given the laudable discipline of the rest of the performance, these little outbursts didn’t feel excessive.

The Berlin Symphony are only occasional visitors to these shores, but their music-making is considerably different to what we usually hear. In terms of technique, this orchestra is the equal of any in London. But their approach to the core German repertoire, at least under Venzago, is more restrained. There may be fewer fireworks here, but the results, especially in the Beethoven, can be just as compelling.

Gavin Dixon