Nelsons in Beethoven: Work in Progress?

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Strauss and Beethoven:Angela Denoke (soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 28.2.2013 (MB)

Strauss: Tod und Verklärung, op.24
Waldseligkeit, op.49 no.1
Ruhe, meine Seele, op.27 no.1
Cäcilie, op.27 no.2
Allerseelen, op.10 no.8
Das Rosenband, op.36 no.1
Beethoven: Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67

I struggled to find much of an idea behind this Strauss and Beethoven programme. Both Tod und Verklärung and the Fifth Symphony open in C minor and close in C major, but their trajectories are very different: perhaps that was the point? Maybe it was just a matter of having Andris Nelsons and Angela Denoke available on the same evening. At any rate, if the combination did not especially enlighten, nor did it jar in the sense that the briefly-popular Eroica-plus-Ein Heldenleben did. (How could the latter work not pale by comparison, even if one did not tire of E-flat major?)

Nelsons has built quite a reputation already as a Straussian. However, on this occasion and to my ears, it was only intermittently fulfilled. The ‘heartbeat’ to the opening of Tod und Verklärung was as aural-pictorially convincing as Strauss could ever have hoped for: tribute of course to the Philharmonia’s excellence as much as that of Nelsons. Moreover, that figure was properly integrated in musical terms; it did not simply stand out as an ‘effect’. The soft, sometimes very soft, playing drew one in, despite a less-than-well-behaved audience. Unfortunately, what had sounded as though it would be a very fine performance lost its way somewhat, vehement assertions of the hero’s life coming across in all too hard-driven a fashion. The brass sounded uncharacteristically crude, clearly acting under instruction. It might have been Sir Georg Solti conducting, were it not for Nelsons’s hyperactive podium manner. (The problem with such things is that if the musical results are good enough, for instance in the case of Bernstein at his best, no one will care; the moment they are not, the manner will irritate. And in general, it is difficult to imagine the greatest conductors – Furtwängler, Klemperer, Kleiber père or fils, Boulez, et al., jumping around in demented fashion.) What was lacking was a stronger sense of overall line, indeed of (post-)symphonism. Still, the performance certainly did not deserve its blighting by a mobile telephone; leader, Zsolt-Tihámer Visontay, whose solos had been exquisitely taken, was not the only orchestral musician to glare into the audience at that point. At least the Philharmonia’s glorious echt-Straussian glow offered some ultimate compensation. Moreover, Nelsons’s shaping of the close, a little orchestral untidiness notwithstanding, showed significant return to form – in more than one sense.

Interestingly – and not necessarily unusually – Nelsons seemed more relaxed, certainly more fluent, as ‘accompanist’. Denoke is not possessed of the most ideally soaring of soprano voices for Strauss, yet from the opening of Das Rosenband she communicated the words most ably. Is that enough? Perhaps not in this case, ultimately, for as Julian Johnson remarked in his excellent programme note, in Strauss’s vocal music, it is often ‘the rich quality of the voice itself that seems to embody what the poem promises’. Nevertheless, there was much to enjoy, not least in the Philharmonia’s ability to offer almost ‘chamber’-like transparency without reduction in string forces. The orchestral stirring of the wood in Waldseligkeit sounded nicely Wagnerian, Siegfried in particular coming to mind; it was good to hear the harmonium too. However, it was in this song, that Denoke’s enunciation became less distinct. Matters were put right in Ruhe, meine Seele! If her soprano remained somewhat hard-edged, she marshalled her resources well, turning the song arrestingly – even if this should not be how one would always wish to hear it – into something approaching a musico-dramatic scena. Again, Wagnerian harmonic echoes in the orchestra were well conveyed. Orchestral warmth, including delectable solos on flute (Samuel Coles) and violin (Tihámer-Visontay) was a hallmark of Allerseelen, though arguably it dragged a little. Cäcilie, however, sounded reinvigorated, from the magnificent wash of orchestral sound with which it opened onwards. Denoke’s operatic experience was put to good use in communication of meaning, though her intonation was not always spot on. Zueignung was offered as an encore; if one could not help but long for a Jessye Norman or a Gundula Janowitz, one could still appreciate the musical and verbal acuity of Denoke’s account. What a pity, then, that a vulgar audience member saw fit to bawl ‘Bravo!’ before the orchestra had ceased to resound!

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is an extraordinarily difficult piece to bring off, partly on account of the great performances from the past that retain their hold in our memories, individual and collective, partly on account of the stature the work has accrued in our general cultural consciousness, partly on account of its intrinsic performative difficulty: there are so many awkward ‘corners’ to navigate, even before one begins to consider vexed questions of meaning. (Of course, to separate score and meaning is already to fall short; the latter is not somehow something to be ‘applied’ once the notes are there. A still worse course is somehow to pretend that there is no meaning; that this is just a collection of notes, a superior sewing-machine pattern.) Nelsons’s first movement did not start off badly at all. There was nothing objectionable – today, alas, that itself is almost a mark of distinction – save for his strange reluctance to give full due to the first pause of the opening motif, both at the opening and upon its every recurrence. (One can still observe a distinction between the first paused note, a minim, and the second, a minim tied to a second minim, without sounding peremptory, as here.) Everything was well executed and there was highly creditable depth once again to the Philharmonia’s sound. Formal concision certainly came across. And yet, there never quite seemed to be enough at stake; there was little sense of struggle, and Beethoven without struggle really is not Beethoven at all. The coda was excitable rather than awe-inspiring, that initial wrench to the tonic minor barely registering. Once again, podium hyperactivity began to irritate; I could not help but wish for a little of the sobriety of Wolfgang Sawallisch, to whose memory this concert was dedicated.

Some unfortunate woodwind slips – much to my surprise – marred the slow movement early on. Nelsons’s overly-moulded direction of the opening cello-section solo made for somewhat uncomfortable listening too, despite commendably rich cello tone. Ultimately, this proved to be episodic, harking back to the Strauss performance; the longer line was not maintained as it might have been. It was not too grievous and indeed there was a sense of real dignity to some of the episodes, but with Furtwängler, Klemperer, Kleiber, Boulez, Barenboim, et al. in the back of one’s mind, it was difficult not to wish for more. A barrage of coughing ensued once the movement had concluded, offering odd preparation for the scherzo. It was really rather fine first time around: implacable, defiant, mysterious. Above all, it was harmonically grounded. The hushed reprise suffered a little from imperfect balancing, though one could ‘fill in the gaps’ aurally without too much ado. The transition to the finale was not helped by a further outbreak of bronchial terrorism; it nevertheless promised much.

Unfortunately, that sublime moment of arrival was blunted by a lack of gravity, excellence of orchestral playing notwithstanding. Nelsons once again proved too excitable. His basic tempo, whatever the dreary empirical ‘truth’ of the metronome, simply sounded hasty. Rejoicing was more suggestive of an end-of-term party than musico-metaphysical victory or presumed victory. There were fine moments, but moments alas are not enough. Without the greater whole, the heavens will not be stormed and shivers will not be sent down the spine. Despite this relative disappointment, I shall not give up hope yet that we might one day hear a fine Beethoven Fifth from Nelsons; perhaps it is just too early. A little reading of Wagner’s wonderful essays, On Conducting and Beethoven, would do no harm in the meantime. Better still, he – and we – should listen to Furtwängler.

Mark Berry