Graceful, Precise Conducting from Skrowaczewski at 89

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Brahms, Bruckner, Shostakovich: Garrick Ohlsson (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Stanislav Skrowaczewski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 26.10.12 (GD) 

Brahms: Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op. 15
Adagio from String Quintet in F major (arr.Skrowaczewski)
Symphony No.1 in F major, Op.10

In many ways this was as fine a performance of what Donald Tovey called a ‘classical concerto of unprecedented tragic power’ as I have heard. Skrowaczewski, noted as a fine Brahms conductor, seemed to get the dramatic opening orchestral balance just right. Or perhaps I should say he made the rather the thick orchestration – especially in the lower orchestral registers with baleful bassoons and contra bassoons, timpani and double-basses – audible. It is incredible to think that Brahms was in his early twenties when he composed this masterpiece; his first major orchestral work. The only comparable examples of such mastery at such a young age are from Mozart, especially his early operatic masterpiece Idomeneo, and Handel in the Latin Motets he composed in his youthful days in Rome. Skrowaczewski managed a beautiful lucidity in the woodwinds which usher in the first plangent theme for piano soloist, which Tovey compared to one of the ‘ariosos’ from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which Brahms, of course, knew well.

Overall Ohlsson played well, but at times I don’t think he quite had the huge pianistic range required here.  His playing often had a kind of surface effect alien to this of all concertos There was plenty of energy and clarity in his playing but for me there was a certain lack of depth, inner intensity and lyricism, so crucial in Brahms and this work in particular.  I was longing for a pianist of the calibre of say Pollini, or in the field of younger pianists Nicholas Angelich, who is superb in Brahms. The beginning of the development section with a triumphant ff from the soloist went well, with powerful drumrolls which never obscured the piano. Also the beginning of the first movement coda with an ironic D major from the soloist had all the necessary drama. Here, and despite the shortcomings mentioned, I perceived a fine rapport, a dialogue between soloist and conductor. And indeed this applied to the whole movement and most of the concerto.

I would have preferred antiphonal violins but Skrowaczewski more than made up for this with a well defined integrity and lucidity. Skrowaczewski initiated a superbly sustained Adagio. All the way through this profound statement there was a measured pace which, however, never dragged. Brahms in his sketches inscribed the opening devout theme as a ‘Benedictus’, and there is a clear relationship here to the Benedictus from Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis’,. Also the movement is thought to be Requiem for his friend Robert Schumann. The chorale like middle section in B minor  emerged naturally from minor key tonal structure of the movement and the whole work. The entry of a solemn minor key measured figuration for timpani, silent throughout the rest of the movement, had a trenchant effect rounding off the mood of stoic, tragic resignation in the last chords.

The last movement again was admirably paced by Skrowaczewski. Commentators on this concerto always emphasise the influence of the last movement of Beethoven’s C minor Piano Concerto in this  movement. There are obvious similarities here, and both are rondo movements. But I don’t think these similarities should be taken too far. Brahms’s rondo is cast more in the minor key register and is more expansive than the Beethoven concerto. And both have an intricate fugal section before the coda in the orchestra, the Brahms being longer and more elaborated. Again Scrowaczewski brought out all the counterpoint here with admirable economy and clarity. Ohlsson veered into a rhythmic cul-de-sac just before his cadenza, with some glaring wrong notes. But the exultant D major coda itself went well with its clearly audible reference to the passage ‘wo dein sanfter Flugel weilt’ from the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

The Bruckner Adagio comes from his only major chamber composition, the String Quintet in G flat major. It lasts for around 16 minutes and has a beautifully glowing quality – a calm solemnity combined with moments of an almost Schubertian lyricism. The original string quintet, a quartet with an added viola part, as in the great Mozart string quintets, has an orchestral feel to it, especially in this adagio. Musicologist Hans Stadmair completed a recent arrangement, which is used by that other fine Brucknerian Herbert Blomstedt. I didn’t notice much difference between this arrangement and the one heard tonight by Skrowaczewski himself. The conductor used a full string complement with eight double basses producing a rich sonorous tone especially in the cellos and double basses. Tonight’s programme writer tells us that  its ‘harmonic richness’ and ‘noble melody and counterpoint’ has been compared with Beethoven’s late quartets. Apparently, according to this writer, Bruckner at the time of composition 1878/9  had no knowledge of the Beethoven works! It is quite informative to speculate on such comparisons, but I would not go this far; perhaps it is more productive to listen to this work in its own terms. As in most of Bruckner’s mature works this music is unique to Bruckner. If comparisons are not necessarily ‘odious’ they can confuse and lead us away from the specificity of a certain work or genre.

Shostakovich’s youthful First Symphony was completed as a graduation exercise in 1925. It is a very ‘Russian’ work, not only in its frequent use of Russian folk tunes, but also in its departure from the ‘Classical’ symphonic Western tradition. It received its first performance in Leningrad in 1926, was later premiered in Berlin by Bruno Walter, and then taken up by Toscanini in New York. Toscanini’s brilliant performance can still heard in a recording he made of it in 1944. Both these conductors, especially in their later years, rarely went beyond the standard repertoire and were polar opposites in terms of conducting style. So it is interesting that they were both impressed by this bold and youthful work by a very Russian composer.

Skrowaczewski is noted for his performances of this symphony, which is a speciality of his. And this showed tonight. It was certainly a much broader reading than Toscanini’s performance.  With such attention, projection to orchestral detail, it sounded more like a concerto for orchestra than most renditions, but there was an impressive unity and coherence in Skrowaczewski’s performance.  The second movement  development, not contrast, to the opening Allegro non troppo of the first movement, was articulated with great skill and perception, with a subtle use of rubato.  There was a wonderful sense of an unfolding narrative logic and development troughout. The funeral march in the trio of the scherzo-like second movement was shot through with exactly the right sense of irony, which Shostakovich was to go on to develop as a major component of his later music.

The third movement, which devlops thematically from the preceding movement was suitably expressive as a kind of lament. Skrowaczewski paced the movement broadly giving it an almost stoic, heroic quality , but which never dragged. The finale, which plays with a variety of themes from the preceding movements leads to an accelerated climax where a bleak ff solo timpani figure reminds us of the previous funeral march theme, in inverted form. Although tonight’s timpanist played the opening motive here more as an ffff, it intoned exactly the right mood for the exhilarating coda in the major (a wonderful contrast to the constellation of mostly minor key registers in the preceding music of the movement), again with a tone of biting irony. When the timpani figure is played at the dynamic level indicated it can still sound suitably sharp and arresting, as in the Toscanini recording. But it would be churlish to criticise this detail in the light Skrowaczewski’s brilliant and perceptive overall rendition. Throughout the LPO in all sections played with a conviction and brilliance, responding admirably to the conductor’s, and the composer’s every nuance.  .

Skrowaczewski is now in his 89th year but this did not impair in any way his concentration and  conducting skills. Indeed his conducting gestures were a model of economy, grace and exactitude. Interestingly the score of the symphony was there on the conducting stand, but Scrowaczewski did not refer to it once. It remained closed.


Geoff Diggines