Exceptional Playing from the World’s Second Oldest Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Dvořák: Nelson Goerner (piano), Staatskapelle Weimar / Stefan Solyom (conductor), The Anvil Arts Centre, Basingstoke, 12.1. 2013.

Beethoven: Coriolan Overture Op.62
Piano Concerto No.4 in G major Op.58
Dvořák: Symphony No.8 in G major Op.88

This concert was the first instalment of Anvil Arts’ enterprising International Concert Series. Following on from five concerts in the autumn of last year a further ten aim to bring world-class music making to the South-East of England. It is a salutary thought that between the rich diversity of the London musical scene and the only professional full time orchestra in the South of England in Bournemouth over 100 hundred miles to the south west there is nothing of particular note for classical music lovers to attend on a regular basis. If you draw a line from Bournemouth to London, you will find Basingstoke midway with its excellent Anvil Arts Concert Hall. Built in 1994 with an emphasis on acoustical excellence this 1400 seater hall is a venue worthy of its lofty aims.

All credit is due to the Anvil’s artistic planning team. They have put together a series of concerts that will appeal to the core audience of ‘traditional’ concert-goers with just enough novel repertoire and the chance to hear famous international orchestras live to entice those with the taste for something a little less mainstream.

There are two essential interlocking threads between now and June: a roster of international orchestras and a complete cycle of Beethoven piano concertos – played by different orchestras and soloists. Last night’s concert brought together the two threads with the magjnificent Staatskapelle Weimar under its General Music Director Stefan Solyom. To say that this ensemble founded in 1491 has a rather glorious history is an understatement. It gave the world premieres of Wagner’s Lohengrin and Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel but most famously through its association with Richard Strauss premiered his Guntram, Don Juan, Macbeth and Death and Transfiguration. At the end of World War II it was on the ‘wrong’ side of the iron curtain and so it failed to benefit from an international presence on LP and as such was largely forgotten or unknown by the wider world of music lovers. But the Naxos disc of the Strauss Alpine Symphony in 2006 proved that here was an exceptional orchestra with a gloriously ‘authentic’ German sound, so I was particularly interested to see if that sound and tradition could be translated into a Hampshire concert hall on a cold January evening.

The answer is a resounding yes. Just when I despair about hearing orchestras of a kind of pan-global anonymous excellence it was a delight to hear a group of musicians as fine as they are individual. In part this is helped by their sticking by Germanic performing traditions; the violas sit to the right of the conductor with the cellos to their inside, the trumpets use rotary valve instruments (in the same tradition as the Vienna Philharmonic and others) and the double basses, not surprisingly, prefer the under the bow German grip. A quick look at the orchestral roster shows players trained or born into the German tradition too – all of which results in a sound which is unmistakenly Germanic: rich and full, built on a solid and firm string bass with wind and brass balanced and blended with an organ-like sonority. These qualities were immediately evident from the opening chords of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture with superb unity of attack and weight of tone from front to back in the strings. This was matched by a woodwind second subject of natural grace and elegance with the principal oboe and clarinet blending their tones to perfection. Throughout the concert conductor Stefan Solyom provided alert and extremely proficient direction. An observation rather than a criticism is that these were extremely centrist interpretations; from chosen tempi to phrasing and style there was barely a moment when Solyom chose a musical option that had one ‘surprised’. Perhaps I like to be surprised more than others but in the overture especially for all the exceptional quality of the execution I found the actual interpretation somewhat underdramatised.

To complete an all-Beethoven first half the orchestra were joined by the Argentinian pianist Nelson Goerner in a performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto. Even though string strength was reduced by a desk in each section for the concerto the richness of the string tone was again very apparent. Goerner is a pleasingly unfussy performer to the point of self-effacement. At the beginning of the slow movement where these two qualities are juxtaposed – string tone and pianistic simplicity – the result was totally compelling. Elsewhere, the classical reticence of the solo part felt somewhat at odds with the Romantic character of the orchestral accompaniment. Solyom proved what a fine accompanist he is – neat and unfussy, yet completely in command catching Goerner’s filigree runs with commendable ease. This was all the more impressive when I felt the pianist had a tendency to lose a fraction of metrical accuracy in the flurry of virtuosic display. The finale again displayed the excellence of the orchestra with agility and deftness of execution all presented with the now characteristic tonal allure it produces as standard. It was all in all a fine performance if not one that is likely to linger in the memory as exceptional or revelatory.

The undoubted highlight of the concert was the performance of Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony in the second half after an extended interval. The reason for the delay was explained from the rostrum by Solyom before the performance began. The orchestra’s principal flautist had been taken ill. Because the orchestra is touring with just double wind and no covering players this meant that 2nd flautist Benjamin Plag would play the first part with the second missing. The extra frisson this added to the performance both for audience and players alike lifted the performance. Unsurprisingly one became rather fixated on the first flute part which ultimately reflected great credit on Mr Plag and indeed Dvořák’s skill as an orchestrator. Too often Dvořák is remembered for his melodic gift and his nationalist leanings, all of which masks the skill with which the orchestra is handled. Alongside him Brahms’ orchestration seems solidly functional at best.

The skill of the Weimar orchestra, balanced with real finesse by Solyom and the Anvil’s fine acoustic, revealed time and again real felicities in the music. The basic interpretation was again relatively straight forward and unfussy. Indeed Solyom seems to follow the lead of many of the younger generation of conductors in eschewing any of the older performance traditions associated with this work. For sure this does emphasise the essential freshness of the inspiration but at the same time the loss is of a natural flexibility which in the wrong hands can descend into sentimentality but in the right hands allows the music to tweak the heart strings. In the lilting waltz of the third movement, for example, performance tradition allows the violins a subtle slide up and then down in their musical phrase. Nothing is in the score to that effect but Czech orchestras to this day automatically phrase the music that way. Solyom’s Weimar players perform it completely ‘straight’. Is that wrong? – I don’t know, but given the choice I’d rather swoon!

Everything about this performance was invigoratingly fine; the communication between the cellos and violas at the very opening was a delight to see and hear; the upper strings silky sweet or full and vigorous as required. The violin solo by concert master Gernot Süßmuth deserves a particular mention: it was ideally lyrical yet ardent. The woodwind are a superb unit even allowing for the unusual circumstances and again scoring details from the bassoons and clarinets penetrated the scoring with unusual clarity and no little beauty. Dvořák’s brass writing is much more ‘mobile’ than that of his immediate contemporaries and the Weimar players relished the opportunities offered. The horn section display a fraction more mellow warmth when playing quietly and up to medium dynamics than a British section would. This allows them to blend with the lower strings and wind and produce a gloriously burnished and full sound. Special mention too is due to the timpanist Ingo Wernsdorf who played with brilliant articulation and well controlled dynamic range; it was a mini masterclass in itself. The genuine affection between conductor and players was shown at the end when during the very warm applause Solyom strode through the orchestra and gave Plag an enthusiastic bearhug. Indeed from the amount of onstage backslapping and handshakes all round it was clear that this is an orchestra with a strong personal character aswell as an excellent musical one.

The one regret is that we did not hear this orchestra playing what imagines is their core repertoire of Austro/Germanic late Romantic music. However this was an object lesson in the art of orchestral playing and a privilege to listen to.

Nick Barnard