Variable Schubert and Brahms from the LSO – and a Totally Forgettable Première

26/03/2013

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Eloise Nancy Gynn, Schubert, and Brahms: Nikolaj Znaider (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Nicholas Collon, Manfred Honeck (conductors). Barbican Hall, London, 24.4.2013 (MB)

Eloise Nancie Gynn:  Anahata (world première)
Schubert: Symphony no.8 in B minor, D 759
Brahms:  Violin Concerto in D major, op.77

Eloise Nancie Gynn’s Anahata was the latest work to receive its first performance in the LSO Panufnik Young Composers Scheme. The best, alas, that could be said about it was that it was competently enough orchestrated, if relying far too heavily upon ‘eastern’ colour: bowed vibraphone, Tibetan singing bowl, and so forth. (Edward Said might never have existed.) Otherwise, the piece sounded akin to the sort of soundtrack one might hear on an average television programme: a few ‘effects’, which might have gravitated some meaning in conjunction with an external narrative, but with apparently zero musical justification. Tonal harmonies sounded rather more than shop-soiled. The work, one read, was ‘inspired by my [Gynn’s] exploration of spirituality through meditation. Finding a way through life and its obstacles and emotions; a journey inside, from the head and all its mental chaos, thoughts and “stuff” … into the stillness of the heart space, connecting to the peace within.’ I could go on quoting; on second thoughts, I am not sure that my stomach could withstand the effort. Nicholas Collon and the LSO seemed to give the piece a far more authoritative performance than it deserved. No matter; I doubt we shall hear it again.

I certainly cannot imagine that we shall hear it again in the company of the otherwise well-suited pair of Schubert and Brahms. Manfred Honeck, deputising for Sir Colin Davis, led a performance of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony that for the most part convinced, though it sometimes went a little overboard in its pursuit of extremities, whether of tempo or of dynamic contrast. The opening cellos sounded dark, mysterious, yet controlled: just right. Perhaps the basic tempo adopted was on the fast side, but it soon yielded – arguably too much. Still, better to enjoy flexibility than have the music in a Kapellmeister-ish straitjacket. Cultivated playing from the LSO alternated with furious eruption. It was the beauty of the softest playing, however, which ultimately lingered longest in the memory. Moreover, one certainly heard a good few of the harmonic seeds for Brahms, preparing the way for the second half. This was a musical landscape whose breadth tempted one to think of Bruckner, albeit with greater incident. Unwanted applause ensued. For the most part, the second movement flowed beautifully. ‘Beauty’, however, proved to be a slight problem, for however exquisite the opening of the second group sounded – and it certainly did – it seemed a little too much like an object of appreciation rather than a participant in a musical, indeed above all a harmonic, drama. It undoubtedly offered contrast with the outburst that followed, but the contrast seemed too much: an easy way out, however impressively controlled. That said, it was impossible not to warm to the echt-Viennese quality of Schubert’s Harmoniemusik: not just its exquisite tonal quality, for which the LSO players stood beyond praise, not only on account of its timbral differentiation, but also for its communication of the menace within the ‘heavenly’ material. With a stronger sense of continuity, this might have been a great performance. It is probably a good thing that I do not possess the vocabulary to describe those who applauded before the final chord had ceased to resound.

Nikolaj Znaider joined the orchestra for Brahms’s Violin Concerto. The orchestra showed typically impressive symphonic heft in the opening, Znaider offering in response winningly old-fashioned silken sweetness, not that he lacked cleanness and precision. (Let us pass over the problematic cadenza.) Honeck proved an attentive ‘accompanist’, perhaps a little too much so, clearly following Znaider’s tempo fluctuations rather than emerging as an equal partner. As a whole, there was much to enjoy, but there is something a little amiss when Brahms sounds more ‘enjoyable’ than profound; I could not help but long for Menuhin and Furtwängler, or perhaps even Znaider and Sir Colin. The slow movement offered ravishingly beautiful woodwind playing, and not only from Fabien Thouand’s exquisitely turned oboe solo; once again, Vienna and even Mozart came to mind. When Znaider entered, he creditably sounded as first among equals rather than dominating soloist. With a flowing, uncontroversial tempo, this sounded as Brahms closer to Mendelssohn than to Schoenberg, but there is nothing wrong with that once in a while. The finale, however, proved somewhat awkward, a state of affairs that seemed more Honeck’s doing than Znaider’s. The ‘Hungarian’ rhythm of the principal theme was shaped with fine understanding, its rhythmic accent spot on. Alas, the music soon began to meander, for which Honeck appeared to over-compensate by bringing out an excessive, almost Tchaikovsky-like, array of primary colours as ‘interest’. Such vulgarity has no place in Brahms.

Mark Berry

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