All-Russian Concert Lacks Sharpness, Charm and Emotion

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky: Vadim Repin (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra / Lorin Maazel (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 8.12.2012 (GD)

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, excerpts from Suites 1 & 2: Montagues and Capulets Op. 64b, Romeo at the Grave of Juliet Op 64b,The Death of Tybalt Op 64a.
Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.63
Tchaikovsky Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 ‘Pathétique’

It was quite clear from the opening of the Montagues and Capulets from Suite No.2, – the proud dance of the knights at the Capulets Ball – that Maazel had rehearsed the orchestra well. Tuning was impeccable as was the integrated sound, especially in the strings. At times I thought it a little slow for the Andante marking, however the bold pace of the music was assured. But there was here the sense of a highly homogenised, finished, even glossy, product – something I have heard in other Maazel performances over the recent years. I was sitting in an ideal seat in the front stalls and, even allowing for the Festival Hall’s notorious acoustic limitations, I couldn’t really hear a clear distinction between the cellos and basses, but more of a bass blur. Also the brass interjections in this movement, although well articulated, lacked sharpness and bite; after all, this music is redolent of conflict and violence.

The first performance of Romeo and Juliet took place at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow in 1935, as a concert performance, the premiere of the ballet having to wait until 1938 in Brno. There is a recording of the complete ballet from the Bolshoi made in the early 1960s under Genadi Rozhdestvensky. Arguably this recording has a certain level of ‘authenticity’. Whether this is the case, or not, there is a degree of drama, thrust, sharpness, bite (especially in the brass and bass registers) which was mostly lacking tonight. Romeo at the Grave of Juliet was suitably slow (Adagio, funèbre), but there was a certain lack of movement. The whole scene lacked coherence, sagging at times. Tybalt’s death was impressive in a superficial way, but sounding merely loud at times rather than having any sense of being unleashed as part of a wider drama; the intensity here was somewhat imposed coming from without, rather than from within. Here, and later in the Tchaikovsky symphony, the timpani were loud, rather than powerfully musical, at times blurring other important textures, especially in the strings and woodwind.

The Second Violin Concerto is one of Prokofiev’s most charming and accessible works, with its memorable tunes, rippling solo passage work and allusions to waltz themes in the finale and also, of course, in the slow movement its allusions to (or maybe parody of ?) the second movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. As with the opening work, Maazel coaxed some very well reahearsed and delicate playing from the Philharmonia. It was playing which although very technically accomplished didn’t quite tune in to the many moods of contrast and irony, especially in the finale with its Spanish (Iberian) flavour replete with clacking castanets. I also felt this lack of contrast, irony and flair in Repin’s playing, not that there was much sense of dialogue or rapport, between him and the conductor. Repin seemed to simply fiddle along, quite competently, without much change in tone and lacking in dynamic diversity, thus missing much of Prokofiev’s use of violin textures as derived from folk themes and also from the traditional idiom of the piano with violin, as heard with Stravinksy’s compositions for violin. This certainly did not displace memories of the likes of Oistrakh, Milstein and more recently Gil Shaham, in this music.

Many years ago Maazel made a recording of Tchaikovsy’s Pathétique Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. Although some critics at the time thought it lacked warmth and emotion, many saw it as a welcome objective reading, one which brushed away the detritus of years of willful performative distortion. (The symphony for decades was the victim of conductorial egoism and excess.) That Vienna recording, still sounding excellent, especially in terms of orchestral balance and clarity, came in at a mere 42 minutes and 22 seconds, compared with tonight’s performance which lasted just over 50 minutes.So, how do we account for this very considerable increase in duration? Well, Maazel’s tempi were not just broader, but on occasion tended to drag. There was an unfortunate fluff in the opening bassoon motif foreshadowing the the main theme. This seemed to produce a certain tentativeness in the following theme for violas in lively dialogue with flutes. But by the time we reached the big melodic theme, with its ‘dying away’ sequences, things seemed to have settled down in terms of assured orchestral coordination. This great melody should flow with plenty of movement (moderato mosso) and elegance of phrasing, but tonight Maazel, totally unlike in his earlier recording, drew it out unnecessarily, making it sound turgid and indulgent, rather than spontaneous and fresh. The crash which opens the development section (the longest Tchaikovsky wrote) was absurdly loud. The composer is quite unambiguous throughout the score in terms of dynamics. The ‘crash’ is marked ff followed by a decrescendo to pp. But tonight, with a savage onslaught from timpani, it sounded more like fffff! This is an important point. If Tchaikovsky’s instructions here are followed with accurate timing and rhythm the passage actually gains in terms of dramatic impact. In the the work’s performance history this was probably most convincingly achieved by Toscanini, who played the passage to the letter. But overall, in this crucial development section, there was little sense of contour, or line.

It takes a conductor of great skill to make all the diverse dynamic tonal registers (from B minor to B flat and E minor) cohere. It also takes a great conductor and orchestra to project the intense sense of tragic drama here, replete with an ominous dramatic phrase from one of the Russian Orthodox Requiem chants. None of this registered tonight, and at the great B minor climax the sheer loudness of the timpani obscured crucial counterpoint in the strings and woodwind. Even though this climax is marked ffff the timpanist belted out a frontal assault more suitable to the entry of shattering timpani in the storm prelude to Wagner’s Die Walküre! The timpani part here is again quite clearly marked as a powerful crescendo. Surely this kind of excess should have been checked by the conductor? In this respect it is interesting to note that in Maazel’s earlier recording (mentioned above) everything is played virtually as directed in the composers score!

The second movement waltz in 5/4 time had little sense of elegance, charm or lilt. And the trio’s hint of Slavonic despair, with its ostinato pedal rhythm in the lower orchestral register, sounded rather bland. More like a rehearsal run-through.

The third movement’s central G major march sounded quite exciting in parts with blaring horns and trumpets., although, curiously for Maazel, the march thythms sounded a little static, lacking a sense rhythmic contrast and movement. And I heard none of what Tovey talked about in terms of the ‘frantic exhilaration’ towards the march’s lead into, and in, the coda itself, pre-empting the tone of tragedy in the finale. This was not helped by Maazel’s decision to make a considerable allargando at the final re-entry of the march, bringing into the music an alien tone of pomposity. There is absolutely no sign of an allargando in Tchaikovsky’s score, and also none in Maazel’s earlier recording. The usual erroneous audience applause greeted the end of the march movement. There were calls to desist from clapping, but to little effect!

Maazel took the opening phrases of the finale at a very measured pace. Despite the Adagio marking a sense of movement underpins the music. It can sound impressive at Maazel’s tempo if the pulse is sustained. But by the time we reached close of the first subject, anticipating the second subject, the music became slower and slower, almost reaching a standstill. Consequently there was a lapse in flow and continuity. So much so that the ghostly hymn-like theme of the second subject was deprived of some of its sombre and poignant directness. The build-up to the final catastrophic climax, with ample vibrato, sounded impressive, and the single gong stroke (‘the most ominous sound in the orchestra, if discreetly used’ for Tovey) was well balanced. Maazel achieved a suitably bleak tone and ominous pulse in the ‘utter despair’ of the coda now in the home key of B minor. But even here, and moving as it was, there was a sense that the music needed to move more, to be more sustained thereby registering the tragedy more directly and trenchantly powerful. Again, it is all there in Maazel’s earlier recording, as I said, made many years ago.

Geoff Diggines